It's official. Teen moviegoers have made Leonardo DiCaprio one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood. Talented. Handsome. Charming. In fact, his appeal to swooning adolescent girls has been credited with much of Titanic's impressive repeat business. DiCaprio's latest film, The Man in the Iron Mask, revisits a classic tale by French author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870). Powerful themes include loyalty, faith, forgiveness, duty, compassion and kindness. Unfortunately, those positives are all but suffocated by caveats as cumbrous as the title character's heavy shroud.
The story takes place in 1662 France. People are starving. Paris is being crushed beneath the heel of King Louis XIV (DiCaprio), an arrogant, deceitful ruler. His tyrannical indifference to the plight of his countrymen seems destined to provoke a bloody revolution. With the exception of D'Artagnan, the original Musketeers who valiantly served the young king's noble father have since hung up their swords. But their greatest battle is still to come. It's one for all and all for one as the plumed patriots reunite to covertly replace Louis with his exiled twin, Philippe (also DiCaprio)--the man in the iron mask.
Deftly portrayed by Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu and Gabriel Byrne respectively, Aramis, Athos, Porthos and D'Artagnan are engaging embodiments of inner conflict, divided loyalties and flawed, yet principled character. Aramis has embraced religious faith and Jesuit priesthood. Athos has gratefully dedicated his life to raising a son (who tragically falls prey to royal sin straight from 2 Samuel 11). D'Artagnan, now Captain of Louis' legion of Musketeers, remains intensely loyal to the monarchy, and though he hates the king's wicked ways, he clings to hope that the young man will change. The black sheep of this group is the crude, flatulent Porthos, whose defining passion is sexual lust. He runs a brothel, and whines about his impotence and inability to find a good fight. Porthos is also primarily responsible for the film's crass references to anatomy and biological functions--base attempts at comic relief.
The action unfolds like a 17th Century soap opera, with startling revelations and plot twists courtesy of screenwriter/director Randall Wallace (whose Braveheart script was nominated for an Oscar). The story stumbles in places, but recovers by exalting the love between fathers and sons, faith in God and in people, true forgiveness, mercy, prayer, allegiance to one's word, chivalry, the sacrificial love of John 15:13 and Philippe's decision to rise above his circumstances ("I wear the mask; it does not wear me").
Frequent swordplay, numerous stabbings and a pair of suicide attempts notwithstanding, the biggest hurdle facing families involves sexual dialogue and content. In one scene, Porthos literally rolls in the hay with three young women. DiCaprio's King Louis is shown in bed with various mistresses.
Many of the film's sexual transgressions are redeemed to some degree by the counsel of nobler characters. For example, although Porthos and King Louis separately take pride in their ability to seduce numerous lasses, D'Artagnan declares, "I think that it is possible for one man to love one woman all of his life and be the better for it." Nice save. When Porthos interrupts a praying Aramis with a pointlessly blunt spiel about the virtues of women's breasts, the priest reminds him that there are more important things in life. Good advice. Can such scenes be used to teach young viewers valuable life lessons? Possibly. But discerning families may decide it's not worth exposing adolescents to the troublesome content in the first place.
The Man in the Iron Mask layers action, drama and occasional humor with thought-provoking dialogue and engrossing character studies. But the on-screen trysts of a certain teen heartthrob, combined with the movie's violence and crude language, will cause many families to avoid it altogether. It is slain by its own inconsistency--morals as diametrically opposed as the ones motivating DiCaprio's royal twins. What's good is very good. What's not deserves to be vanquished.