The Man in the Iron Mask was released in 1998, at the height of Leonardo DiCaprio's post-Titanic blast-off to stardom, and whatever lasting pop-culture imprint it made was no doubt largely indebted to his newfound celebrity. That said, viewed 20 years on, via Shout Select's new anniversary Blu-ray, the film holds up as an impressive bit of ensemble performance, thanks to DiCaprio, Byrne, Irons, Sarsgaard, Anne Parillaud, and several others, who turn take their time with a fairly classic drama. The movie is also blessed with unusually gorgeous visuals that shine via a new 4K master.
Since the mid-2000s, DiCaprio has established himself as an unusually committed actor, one following in the figurative and literal footsteps of Robert De Niro in terms of his dedication and his collaborations with Martin Scorsese. The period between Titanic in 1997 and the one-two punch of Christmas 2002 releases Gangs of New York and Catch Me If You Can is sparse and what's there is generally widely-maligned (The Beach) or largely forgotten (Celebrity), and it would be easy to think that DiCaprio spent most of that time acclimating to his newfound status. Yet, his performance in The Man in the Iron Mask is consistently impressive. A dual role may be an easy home run for an actor, but DiCaprio digs down into body language and tone to really bring out the differences even when only one of the twins is on screen (in fact, there may only be one moment in the film using special effects to place both characters in the shot). He holds his own against the veteran cast, and is largely responsible for the effectiveness of the drama (thanks to Louis's villainy, or Phillippe's innocence).
Of the remaining cast, Byrne gets the largest spotlight, playing a character that is torn up inside (more on this below), fighting his allegiance to a rotten king and the Musketeer spirit he still holds dear. He is also wrestling with a secret romance, with Parillaud as Louis's mother, that is subtle but compels thanks to the two performers. Irons has a somewhat thankless job, often left to be the one to dole out exposition or play a functional role in a scene rather than a deeply dramatic one, but he gives the role vigor and life. Sarsgaard is excellent casting as the deeply earnest but doomed Raoul, making the most of his screen time so that his fate stings. Edward Atterton also deserves a special mention, playing D'Artagnan's right-hand man, Lieutenant Andre. Despite only playing a key role in a climactic scene after spending most of the film as a glorified extra, Atterton leaves a striking impression in his fleeting moments. As for the rest of the cast, Depardieu is fitfully amusing in a comic relief role (and maybe less so given the nature of his character in light of recent allegations against the actor), but John Malkovich feels oddly inert as Athos, delivering many of his lines in a somewhat flat monotone, and looking somewhat disgruntled in the background of other scenes (possibly as a result of the film's troubled production, which saw a key producer replaced mid-production).
If there's any issue with the film, it's that it's unnecessarily long at 132 minutes, which delays a key sympathetic revelation about D'Artagnan until well after his character's stubbornness becomes frustrating. The Man With the Iron Mask feels like one of those films that could be judiciously shortened to come in closer to 2 hours flat without excising a single scene. The film is also somewhat light on swashbuckling action, which is not necessarily a flaw but might surprise viewers expecting something more in line with another, similar 1998 release, The Mask of Zorro. The Man in the Iron Mask is probably the better film, boasting more meaty and substantial character drama, but writer/director Randall Wallace probably could've incorporated a few techniques on keeping his film as energetic as that one, had this one not come out several months beforehand.
The Video and Audio
For this new 20th Anniversary, Shout! Factory has produced two new interviews, one with producer Paul Hitchcock (18:41), and another with production designer Anthony Pratt (8:09). Hitchcock's memories are largely focused on the tumultuous production of the film, which saw him brought in while the film was already in production to replace another producer, and having to meet with studio executive Frank Mancuso over the film's budget, which was small for the industry but large for MGM. He also talks a little about young star Leonardo DiCaprio and how DiCaprio and Malkovich helped steer the ship through the rough patches, and production troubles that were out of his hands, such as the sweltering weather in Paris when the film was being shot. Pratt speaks a bit about specific work and the struggle to get the set designs produced with the budget and through the regime change, working on location, and his memories of the film's star-studded cast. Both featurettes are reasonably entertaining, even if they are padded a bit with footage from the film.
An original theatrical trailer for The Man in the Iron Mask is also included (note that the 20th Century Fox Blu-ray had two trailers).