Twenty years ago, The Man in the Iron Mask provided a loose adaptation of French history and literature starring an impressive cast of actors including a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Randall Wallace’s debut feature struggles to find confident footing as the film attempts to juggle drama, comedy, and swashbuckling action. Shout! Factory brings the film to Blu-ray in their Shout Select line with a new 4K scan of the original camera negative and a new 5.1 DTS track that make for an impressive A/V presentation. Recommended.
“Hell may be our destination, but not this trip.”
The glory days of the three Musketeers are gone. Having parted ways, the swashbucklers are now leading very different lives. Aramis (Jeremy Irons) has joined the priesthood and pledges the breadth of this days to somber prayer much to the dismay of Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) who now owns a brothel, and well, behaves like a man who owns a brothel! Athos (John Malkovich) has dedicated his life to his son Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard), ensuring the lad leads a good life and eventually follows in his father’s footsteps. D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) still holds the post of Captain of the Musketeers, though these days his efforts are relegated to that of personal security of King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio). Louis, a young narcissistic ruler who has driven his people into starvation and unnecessary wars, has yet to realize the true power of a good king. When he spots Raoul’s girlfriend Christine (Judith Godreche) he falls madly in love with her. Soon Raoul is suddenly called for active duty and sent to the front lines of the war effort into the deadly path of cannon fire. Athos vows revenge on the death of his son while D’Artagnan struggles with his loyalty to a king who starves his people and steals their women. Aramis calls a secret meeting of the four brothers in arms. His plan would unseat the king and replace him with a supposed twin brother jailed in the Bastille.
Anniversary editions of movies these days either remind me that I’m an old fart or make me excited to relive my younger days. Twenty years later, my feelings about The Man in the Iron Mask haven’t changed since I caught it on VHS. Filled with amazing actors and absolutely gorgeous settings, the film lacks any hint of subtlety. Characters are drawn in very broad strokes, leaving their motivations rendered in stark contrast to the meandering plot that keeps the film stagnant until the third act. Tonally, the film is uneven, creating an interesting mix of drama, comedy, and sluggish action that never finds a confident foothold on the proceedings. Opening the film with Porthos farting in Aramis’ face and convincing him that all he needs is a “good pair of tits” is certainly setting up the audience for a completely different kind of costume drama.
DiCaprio turns in a fine performance juggling multiple roles and holding his own with the veteran actors sharing his scenes. It’s quite fitting for young heartthrob to helm the role of a narcissistic monarch drunk with power, right? The ensemble cast is an insanely talented group of actors that elevate the characters beyond the page. Byrne is the standout of the group given the meatiest character in D'Artagnan who confidently handles lion's share of the emotional burden here. Conversely, Depardieu’s Porthos is a great take on the character, but his lusty persona and bumbling antics are so out of place in this film. Malkovich is well, Malkovich! He brings an unabashed intensity that we’ve come to expect from the celebrated actor.
My favorite scene is a long one-take of Aramis and Athos at the Jesuit compound. In one continuous loop, Aramis follows a moving carriage, lifts himself on it, and delivers a witty remark just as the carriage rushes by the camera. The cavalier attitude Aramis portrays is exactly what the film should exude from every scene. It combines an interesting shot while adding some much-needed levity and momentum to the film. The Man in the Iron Mask isn’t a dull movie, per se, but we only get fleeting glimpses of the movie it should be.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Shout! Factory brings The Man in the Iron Mask to Blu-ray with a 20th Anniversary Edition in their Shout Select series with spine #49. The Region A BD-50 disc is housed in a standard keepcase with reversible artwork and slipcover. The disc loads to the Shout! Factory logo before landing on a static menu screen with typical navigation options.
Shout! Factory’s new 4K scan of the original camera negative forThe Man in the Iron Mask is a remarkable improvement upon previous HD releases. The 1.85:1 MPEG-4 AVC encode is bright yet complex with dark inky blacks, solid primaries, and fine detail in every frame.
As with previous home video releases, facial tones appear slightly oversaturated in outdoor scenes. Because this release features just a scan of the negative and not a restoration, it appears this red crush effect occurred in camera and not during post-production. Lush greens from the palatial gardens are presented in near Technicolor glow that only highlights the even brighter costuming elements.
Close-ups reveal fine detail like the marks on Christine’s face or the intricate stitching on d’Artagnan’s cloak. Seeing the elaborate costumes and settings in such clarity with fine film grain is a testament to the quality of this presentation. However, it isn’t without some flaws. Occasional noise and specks occur, but are minimal and don’t distract from the overall experience. After twenty years, The Man in the Iron Mask looks terrific.
The Man in the Iron Mask arrives on 20th Anniversary Blu-ray with a striking DTS-HD MA 5.1 and a respectable DTS 2.0 audio mix. The 5.1 is an energetic mix using the entire soundfield to envelope the room throughout the feature. Effects are punchy and crisp with action scenes. Cannon fire combined with the rich sweeping grandeur of Nick Glenie-Smith’s scoring keep low-end frequencies booming without distortion. Surround channels are utilized much to the success of even the small moments of the film carrying somber scoring elements or atmospherics nicely. As a dialogue-driven film, our Musketeers’ lines are presented clearly without hiss or distortion through the center channel confidently
There is a discrepancy between the special features listed on the artwork and what appears on the disc. The Alternate Mask Prototype featurette and the Theatrical Trailer appear within the special features menu but fail to appear on the outer artwork sleeve.
With a great mix of archival and new material, there’s something for fans new and old to pick through. Wallace’s 1998 audio commentary is informative but if you don’t have the time just check out the “Director’s Take” featurette for a boiled down version of his commentary. The remaining featurettes are interesting including the original EPK behind-the-scenes featurette.
The Man in the Iron Mask never outshined the Titanic mania in the spring of 1998, but ultimately provided an interesting take on the Three Musketeers with a stellar cast and beautiful locations. Twenty years on, the film still feels like a work-in-progress that needs an identity. For 90’s fans who still have a poster of Leo on their wall (you know who you are!), this is a perfect upgrade to your collection. Shout! Factory’s 20th Anniversary edition Blu-ray presents the film in the highest quality seen on home video yet. The new 4K scan is a drastic improvement upon previous releases as is the new 5.1 DTS audio mix. Combined with plenty of special features this Blu-ray release will surely please fans of the film. Recommended.