The Iron Mask


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Iron Mask
"This is a film whose bombast and ambition is compromised by the fact that it clearly never met an idea it didn't like." | Photo: Signature Entertainment

There's a lot going on here. Indeed, like Flash Gordon or The Phantom Menace this is a film whose bombast and ambition is compromised by the fact that it clearly never met an idea it didn't like. There are no kitchen sinks, but there's also not a soundtrack by Queen nor the lingering hopes of a generation of Star Wars fans not yet betrayed.

If you've seen the trailer, you'll know that Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger fight in this film. Reunited 15 years after the Steve Coogan Around The World In 80 Days, the promise of their showdown is as palpable as the excitement that surrounded the first glimmers of Heat.

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However, the trailer also gratuitously misrepresents the quantity of Arnie on Jackie action because their part of the 'plot', though instigatory, is minimal. The plot is not. After an accidentally comic litany of production companies (near enough nine) there's then a rather complex bit of expository CG. As the 'camera' swirls and swoops through a linked tableaux that at times appears to have been "carved" from "wood", we're introduced to, well, highlights include black wizards, white wizards, magic tea made from the eyelashes of a dragon, and the titular dragon seal.

"Wait!", I hear you cry, isn't the title "The Iron Mask"? Yes. That's the Iron Mask worn by Peter The Great, Tsar of all the Russias, imprisoned in the tower of London by Schwarzenegger as its tyrannical governor James Hook (no, I know). Peter is being held incognito in the same cell as 'Master' (Jackie Chan) who is teaching him martial arts. He's looking to recover the Dragon Seal but can't as he's imprisoned in "England, Tower of London". All the locations are that way round, you'll get used to it. They intercept a carrier pigeon sent by Jason Flemyng's Jonathan Green, a cartographer and adventuring scientist, who also appears in a bit of exposition because...

This is a sequel. No, really. It's a sequel to a film that isn't called Forbidden Kingdom or Forbidden Empire because it's called Viy, because 'Jonathan Green' is actually 'Dzhonatan Grin' because 'Viy' is the name of a demonic entity in a short Russian tale penned by Nikolay Gogol. Yup. Old 'Dead Souls' (1809-1852) himself. Probably the best thing is that heavy eyebrows are actually important within one of the stories in that collection, albeit not the titular one. Which makes Viy II: Journey To China a spiritual sequel as well as an actual one.

You didn't lose track of all that did you? Viy's been filmed before. So this could also be called a sequel to a remake (of a remake! 1909's version by Goncharov is lost, however). Anyway, that pigeon is actually intended for Anna Churina's Miss Dudley, who asks her dad (Charles Dance!) for help, and, look, at one point Rutger Hauer turns up as an Ambassador and, much like the tiger in Detective Dee and The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame, there was so much going on that I only later realised what had happened.

Those bad guy magicians are led by a 'two-faced witch', who allows for one of the better sequences involving a fight between doppelgangers that's at least as good as the bits with Padme et al and the true- and false- kings of Wakanda. A fight aided by effects and stunt teams to be sure, but less obnoxious than the 'added for 3D' bits that include chains, hooks, and a fish. The preceding film in the sequence was mired in legal trouble that affected distribution, and this one will probably only ever be seen in your home because of Covid-19, but know that they want you to know that they really wanted you to see it in the third dimension and not from a sofa you have not moved from in three days. It doesn't really make a difference.

So there's a romantic jealousy subplot aided by Shakespearean gender disguise, a prison parole through fighting that would in and of itself carry a mid-tier John Claude-Van-Damme or Ray Liotta vehicle, stuff that the inexpert will call 'Steampunk' but is actually rooted in orreries and powered by horses and there's a nautical sequence with a sort of volcano Godzilla skeleton archipelago. There's also that fight between the 66-year-old graduate of the Peking Opera School and the 72-year-old former governor of California, which is actually pretty entertaining even if most of the physicality one would expect from The Austrian Oak and Pao- Pao has been replaced by collectors' anguish and some broad chuckles.

There are three credited writers (none of whom are author of The Overcoat) but among the credits are six listed as "Literary Redactor of Dialogues". Whatever this film is called, it could probably have done with a seventh.

Among pacing issues and an episodic nature is a stained glass Mortal Kombat logo, a suspended recliner draped in enough auric rococo to make Jupiter Ascending's Abrasax quail at the conspicuous consumption, man-portable submarines, garden-parasol Ewok Gliders, an entrance abetted by a Romulan chandelier, blue glasses that help distinguish magic from not magic that are somehow not magic, and that's even before the magicians. When we get to China, and it takes a while for everybody to assemble there, there's a village (you know, tending the plantations of magic dragon eyelash magic tea), and it is ruled over by despotic magicians.

There's the electric wizard, like a Vorlon Magneto with a concierge bell as a helmet. There's one who'd be the Incredible Hulk if it was jade and bronze and not gamma rays. There's a dude who can turn into smoke as quickly as a ninja sponsored by Big Tobacco and the anti-catalytic converter lobby. There's also a scholarly Noise Marine, who causes torment with the aid of a backpack Stargate that's been cross bred with a pack of accordeon. No, that's the plural. You learn these kinds of things that you might describe their wonders.

In addition to appearing to have covered itself in glue and rolled around in the Chuck Norris Versus Communism and the Power Rangers costume lockers, production realities and computer graphics give this the same feel as The Great Wall, only with the suspicion that it's a different social media friendly 'free to play' game that's served as inspiration. It's also gone wading through the trope swamp with a hole in its boots. Cats are saved. Calls are refused. Charles Dance. There might even be product placement, but my Cyrillic isn't good enough to decrypt messages burned onto barrels. There's a winged monkey too, or at least a convincing probably demonic simulacrum thereof. I expected a mine-cart level, and if you do too, you'll be disappointed. That might actually be one of the few things they left out.

Sometimes it's difficult to put a numerical rating on a film. Here I'm willing to give two stars, one each for Messrs Chan and Schwarzenegger. It's not that there's nothing else that's noteworthy, you've read this far, but there's little else to draw you to it. Unless, one supposes, you're fascinated by the processes of film, the kind of person intrigued by the notion of the by-laws of the Marvel story parliament or who knows there's no fiction like Hollywood accounting, the kind of film-fan who knows the canon of Cannon. For you, this is still not very good, but my word, it fascinates. Suffice to say that I was entertained, but sometimes not on purpose.

Reviewed on: 09 Apr 2020
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An English traveller journeys from Russia to China in the 18th century, encountering dragons, black magic wizardry and a dragon king.
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Director: Oleg Stepchenko

Writer: Dmitry Paltsev, Alexey A. Petrukhin, Oleg Stepchenko

Starring: Jason Flemyng, Xingtong Yao, Anna Churina, Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rutger Hauer, Charles Dance, Paul Allica, Vilen Babichev, Ruslan Bankovskiy, Narupornkamol Chaisang, Chayanit Chansangavej, Barret Coates, Vladimir Danay, Steve DeMartino

Year: 2019

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: US, Russia, China


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