There’s a reason Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Titanic has been seriously underrated. His Jack Dawson is such a jocular, self-sacrificing romantic sweetheart that everyone looked at DiCaprio and assumed that he was simply a nice-kid actor playing himself. It’s doubtful that anyone will make the same mistake with The Man in the Iron Mask (MGM/UA).

Shot after he became a star, but before he became the brightest star in the universe, this clunky, overlong, intermittently diverting adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel features DiCaprio in a dual role. He’s Louis XIV, a dastardly young noble who lives for the perks of power, and he’s also Louis’ twin brother, Philippe, who was whisked away on the day of his birth, raised as an anonymous country lad, and then subjected by Louis to the most gruesome of punishments, imprisoned and encased in an iron mask, so there’d be no chance of his ever staking a claim to the French throne.

The shockingly androgynous DiCaprio looks barely old enough to be playing anyone with hormones, but he’s a fluid and instinctive actor, with the face of a mischievous angel. As the bad-seed Louis, whose main activity is tumbling various women in the court of Versailles, he’s the king as spoiled baby rock star, clad to the neck in lacy frills, long hair parted in ornamental draped layers, with come-hither eyes and a cheshire-cat grin. Asked if he ever deigns to ”love” any of the beauties in his midst, Louis flashes a leer of entitlement and replies, ”Quite frequently, actually.” DiCaprio invests the line with arrogance, a smug bravura, everything but lust. He reminds me of Michael Jackson in the Thriller days, doing his squinty-eyed impersonation of street-smart erotic danger. On some level, you don’t buy it, but in each case the performer’s impersonation of power-tripping virility has a raw theatrical zest that holds you even more than a conventional macho star might.

Louis’ protectors are those mythical Musketeers: Athos (John Malkovich), Aramis (Jeremy Irons), Porthos (Gerard Depardieu), and D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), still valiant but now weary and middle-aged, struggling to embody the heroic imperviousness of their all-for-one legend. Having served Louis’ noble father, they know what a scoun-drel — a moral imposter — the young king is. Nevertheless, they’re divided, with Byrne’s doleful D’Artagnan standing alone by the inviolability of the crown. It’s only when the king’s scandalous behavior turns murderous that they’re coaxed into forming a plan. They’ll rescue the long-lost Philippe, smuggle him into the castle, and secretly exchange him for the king. Sneaking Philippe out of prison, the Musketeers remove his mask and discover, under layers of gritty matted hair, a milky-skinned waif who has known the tortures of the damned yet somehow clung to higher goodness.

The first feature written and directed by Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask tries to serve up the kind of irresistibly hokey inside-the-castle intrigue that makes you nostalgic for the days when Hollywood knew how to bring this stuff off with leaping panache. Wallace, unfortunately, writes lazy, anachronistic dialogue, and the picture is abysmally shot (by Peter Suschitzky), with a prosaic, low-budget look that never allows you to experience the enraptured majesty of a fairy-tale historical setting. Wallace’s idea of pacing is to pad his story line with awkward scenes of the smudged peasant masses, as well as bare-butt slapstick with Depardieu, as the horny Porthos, overacting even more egregiously than usual.

After numerous delays, Philippe arrives at Versailles and takes the place of his brother at a costume ball, and the movie, for one extended sequence, finally delivers just what you want: passion, cross-cutting suspense, a meditation on the meaning of royalty. But the lumpy exchange-of-identities plot could have used many more scenes of comparable dramatic tension. It was a real mistake to put Philippe back in the iron mask for the action climax, as if he were some damaged 17th-century superhero called Mask Boy. By now, of course, DiCaprio’s fans will probably flock to see him in anything. In The Man in the Iron Mask, though, all he can really do is put his best face on a swashbuckling potboiler. B-

The Man in the Iron Mask
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