Dir: Oleg Stepchenko. Starring: Jason Flemyng, Charles Dance, Rutger Hauer, Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Yao Xingtong. 12A cert, 117 mins
Imagine watching Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger on the same screen, toe-to-toe. It’s what fans of Eighties action flicks have craved for so long. A finger curls on the monkey’s paw and imagine no more. The Iron Mask drops the duo into the middle of a nauseatingly cluttered Russo-Chinese fantasy film. Chan plays a scraggly bearded prisoner, housed in the Tower of London at some point in the early 18th century. Schwarzenegger is his guard, named James Hook but with no connection to the Peter Pan villain. In fact, think of him more as the Terminator by way of Inspector Javert, with a stiff collar and flat quips – or at least lines of dialogue that sound like they should be quips. “Well, that wasn’t your day!” he bellows.
When the actors do battle, it’s dull. Shockingly so. You expect the ultimate showdown between martial arts and pure Hollywood brawn. What you get is limbs in the wind. Chan kicks. Schwarzenegger punches. None of their hits connect in a meaningful way. If there was any flair added by choreographer He Jun, a member of Chan’s own esteemed stunt team, it’s been entirely erased in the edit.
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What’s more, they’re barely in it. The pair are used as A-list bait, bolstered by brief appearances from Charles Dance and the late Rutger Hauer. Otherwise, The Iron Mask could easily be lost in the crowd, especially considering it appears to have about five different titles. In the UK, it’s advertised as The Iron Mask, but the title card reads Mystery of the Dragon Seal. At times, it’s also The Dragon Seal and Journey to China: The Mystery of Iron Mask.
Originally, however, it was Viy 2: Journey to China. Yes, it’s sequel to 2014’s Viy, which was loosely based on the Nikolai Gogol novella and saw its cartographer protagonist Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) rub shoulders with the phantasmagorical world of Ukranian folklore.
For the sequel, its Russian team of creatives – director Oleg Stepchenko, writing alongside Dmitry Paltsev and Alexey A Petrukhin – decided to look east and to the great tradition of Chinese fantasy blockbusters. Jonathan travels to China to study its geography, accompanied by Cheng Lang (Yao Xingtong), a princess disguised as a boy. There’s a dragon whose eyelashes sprout into tea plants and a witch (Ma Li) with many faces. The Man in the Iron Mask appears. He’s not Leonardo DiCaprio, but the deposed tsar Peter the Great. There are Cossack pirates, too, and the film isn’t afraid to lift scenes directly from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
It’s all exposition phoned in with a bad signal. The action’s cut at a furious pace to cover the dubious special effects. When anyone tries to pet the film’s fantastical beasts, their hands go straight through their internal organs. Everyone appears to have been dubbed, even those who clearly delivered their lines in English on set. Sometimes, one character will be dubbed by two different actors. Sometimes, it sounds like the dialogue was recorded not in a studio, but in the hallway next to it. It’s a loud, flashy mess. The Iron Mask will be a curiosity only to those most committed to the mantra of “so bad, it’s good”. A Chan-Schwarzenegger showdown should have stayed a pipe dream.
‘The Iron Mask’ will be available to rent online from 10 April