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Man in the Iron Mask (1998) - Shout Select 20th Anniversary Edition, The

Other // PG-13 // October 9, 2018
List Price: $34.93 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted October 31, 2018 | E-mail the Author
Years after the Musketeers became the stuff of legend, Aramis (Jeremy Irons), D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), Athos (John Malkovich), and Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) have settled into the twilight years, more or less on distinctly different paths. Athos lives quietly, focused on his son Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard), who is preparing to propose to his girlfriend, Christine (Judith Godreche). Porthos spends so much time drinking and sleeping with women that he seems to have reached the end of his thirst for either. Finally, both Aramis and D'Artagnan serve the king, Aramis as a man of the cloth and D'Artagnan as the leader of the Musketeers, who serve as the king's army. Unfortunately for all of them, King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a cruel king, starving the people of Paris, womanizing, and basking in his own arrogance. When he sets his sights on Christine, he sets off a chain of events that reveal his most heartless secret -- a twin brother named Phillippe (DiCaprio), imprisoned for years, his face covered the entire sentence by an iron mask.

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 Blu-ray
The Man in the Iron Mask arrives on 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray as part of Shout! Factory's Shout Select line. This new edition features stylish (if simple) new art of the iron mask engulfed in flames by , and the 1998 "floating heads" poster on the reverse of the sleeve. The one-disc release comes in one of the new cases that are becoming more common these days, and there is a matte cardboard slipcover featuring the new art on the outside of the package. Note that the sticker affixed to the slipcover mistakenly advertises more new extras than have actually been included.

The Video and Audio
As mentioned above, Shout! Factory serves up a new 1.85:1 1080p AVC presentation, created from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, for this edition of The Man in the Iron Mask. The results are largely impressive: the depth, detail, and colors of the new presentation are all extraordinary. With many new scans coming out tilted toward revisionist color schemes, there is something almost electrifying about the sight of vibrant green grass and primary blue sky in establishing shots of Louis's palace. The presentation allows viewers to study the incredibly meticulous work that went into the period setting, including the texture of the costumes and the production design (which is so clear it reveals the artificial nature of some of the sets!). The only quibble is, although the picture does not have the waxy look of excessive noise reduction, grain is extremely minimized, something I suspect is a combination of fine grain in the initial 4K master, and Shout's notoriously middle-of-the-road compression. Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which is lively and enthusiastic, rendering the score by Nick Glennie-Smith with bombast and richness, and capturing the atmosphere of the movie. Although there is some swashbuckling, this is only fitfully action-heavy, but those sequences have a nice depth and immersiveness to them. An impressive presentation all around. There is also a downconverted DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.

The Extras
The bulk of the extras for The Man in the Iron Mask have been taken from older editions. There is an audio commentary by writer/director Randall Wallace that has made its way forward from the LaserDisc era, as well as a featurette on alternate mask prototypes (2:01) that was present on MGM's old DVD. When the film was released on blu-ray previously by 20th Century Fox, the multi-part "Director's Take" (29:12), "Myth and the Musketeers" (7:34), and an original 1998 featurette were all added.

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).

The Man in the Iron Mask overstays its welcome, but other than that, it's a remarkably impressive and entertaining bit of drama thanks to an outstanding cast. Shout! Factory's edition of The Man in the Iron Mask features a largely beautiful new 4K-remastered transfer, all of the old extras, and even a couple of new ones. An easy recommendation.

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