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Review: Iron Mask

Leaning heavily into the appearances of legends Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan, Iron Mask is an over the top fantasy action international blockbuster that is a sequel to the Russian movie, Viy aka Forbidden Kingdom.

If there was one word to use to describe Iron Mask, it would be “over-stuffed” and that is especially true for the plot.  There’s almost too much happening to keep track of but the main gist of the story is that there is an ancient and powerful dragon hidden in China.  A group of white wizards (of which Jackie Chan is a member) were forced out of their kingdom and their duties tending to the dragon by evil black wizards, who want to use the legendary “Dragon Seal” that is in possession of Chan’s Master to control the dragon and take over the world.  Adding to that convoluted plot is the fact that this movie seemingly takes place immediately following Viy, although you are mercifully given a brief recap of the events of that movie since barely anyone in the US has heard of or seen that movie.  The hero of Viy, Jason Flemyng’s Jonathan Green returns as a globe-trotting inventor and cartographer, who is using his new technology to try and more accurately map the world.  After a misunderstanding in Russia, he’s forced to head East toward China, unknowingly bringing along the daughter of Jackie Chan’s Master, Cheng Lan (Helen Yao), who is a princess and the rightful wielder of the Dragon Seal.  As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also The Man in the Iron Mask aka Peter the Great (Yuri Kolokolnikov), who also heads to China after escaping imprisonment in England thanks to the Master and is joined by Jonathan’s wife Miss Dudley (Anna Churina). Also, Charles Dance and Rutger Hauer are here but their roles are so insignificant, it’s baffling why they are here at all (Dance was apparently in Viy), especially Hauer because this is one of his final film appearances and I believe he was dubbed over with a voice that didn’t sound like his.  The dubbing is very weird throughout, as even English characters speaking English sound dubbed and unnatural.  It’s probably a result of it’s Russian/Chinese production and its international release outside the US. You either need to give in to the insanity and tone of the movie or bail and it definitely helps if you’ve seen other recent Chinese blockbusters.  It feels a bit like Dragon Blade or The Great Wall but also possibly something like the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies, or maybe more appropriately, Van Helsing, especially the latter’s multitude of characters and side plots.  The movie veers wildly in tone as well.  While mostly existing in a sort of cartoony comedic tone, it can suddenly veer into a sincere and serious scene where the villagers sing a song of honor and loyalty that has no irony or humor whatsoever.  That is definitely par for the course for the Chinese films I’ve seen but it may give you whiplash if you aren’t used to that sort of pacing or tonal shift.

The big question you’ve probably been waiting for the answer to is, “How long are Jackie and Arnold in this movie?”.  The good news is probably longer than you think but also not nearly long enough.  The duo hangs around for about the first 30 minutes and it culminates in their much-hyped first on-screen fight.  Their fight is easily the highlight of the movie and is a fun showcase for both legends as Arnold gets to drop one-liners and show off his strength while Jackie does some classic evasion and slapstick bits involving a chain and the artifacts and weaponry around Arnold aka James Hook’s office.  There’s a really funny bit where Hook keeps demanding the Master not use a particular sword because of its historical significance and they have a really great back and forth, including some meta dialogue about how long they’ve wanted to fight each other.  The one complaint is that their fight ends fairly abruptly and then they are pretty much gone for the rest of the film.  If you are only here for the Arnold/Jackie fight, you may be better off just checking that out on YouTube but the rest of the movie is entertaining enough to keep watching but no one has the charisma or presence of either of those two legends.  Jason Flemyng, despite being ostensibly the hero of the series, is definitely relegated to a side character and Cheng Lan is the main focus, although again, there’s so much going on, it’s hard to really focus on any one thing and you just have to kind of go with the overall roller coaster ride of the movie.  Flemyng’s Jonathan Green is also kind of a dick and fairly unlikeable but there’s a weird thread throughout the movie where characters say how noble, brilliant and brave he is but all of our visual evidence to his character shows the exact opposite.  There are some fun set pieces, like Peter the Great piloting a ship through a raging storm and the final battle is pretty fantastic with lots of creative ideas, like the villagers using pepper to disable the evil soldiers, who have invincible armor, and Cheng Lan battles the evil queen who uses what are, for all extent and purposes, Mission: Impossible-style face masks, so you multiple Helen Yaos battling each other.  There’s also one of the other big highlights of the movie, which is a group of evil warriors that are seemingly powered by different elements, like wind or electricity, that seems inspired by Big Trouble in Little China.  There’s some great and creative use of their powers and there’s a twist to their true nature that is a fun reveal as well.  There is some iffy CG here and there but you can definitely tell that this movie had a pretty large budget, from the elaborate and well-designed sets to the number of extras.

Iron Mask is kind of a convoluted, over-stuffed mess but the Arnold/Jackie interactions and fight plus some other fun set pieces and the insane spectacle of everything makes it overall entertaining. If you’re not into the tone or style of Chinese blockbusters, you may be turned off by Iron Mask and if you’re only here for Arnold and Jackie, you will probably be disappointed once they exit after the first 30 minutes, but, if you’re looking for a goofy, over the top roller coaster ride full of historical mash-ups, fantasy magic, martial arts and more, Iron Mask may be worth checking out.  It’s out now on Digital, On-Demand, and DVD/Blu-Ray.

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