March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

Leonardo DiCaprio, Gabriel Byrne, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich

The early going is tough in this latest film version of Alexandre Dumas’s 1850 novel. The crudest of the Three Musketeers (Gérard Depardieu, who teams with Irons and Malkovich) grabs at women’s breasts and breaks wind. A petulant King Louis XIV (DiCaprio) struts about like a heavy metal wannabe in Alice Cooper hair and silk dressing gowns. Jolly hangers-on at his court chase after a prize pig as if auditioning for Hee Haw. But just when you have decided that this Man in the Iron Mask is strictly for teenage girls who can’t get enough of their beloved Leonardo, something terrific happens. Iron Mask’s plot kicks in and proves Dumas’s old warhorse can still run.

Despotic Louis, it turns out, has a saintly twin (also DiCaprio, far more effective as the hero than the bratty villain) whom he has imprisoned, hiding his brother’s face behind an iron mask. As the aging musketeers scheme to dump Louis for the good twin, Mask becomes a vigorous and engaging blend of intrigue, sword fights and romantic derring-do. Boisterously directed and written by Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart), this is Saturday matinee stuff in which our heroes are forever charging into the fray with swords drawn. Who can resist? “All for one, one for all,” may be their battle cry, but a more fitting motto could just as easily be, “All for fun, fun for all.” (PG-13)

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