The Iron Mask finally lands, bringing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan together on screen – but things go wrong fairly quickly.
In storms Arnold Schwarzenegger with a massive moustache, puffing up his chest and swaggering around like he’s just been cast in a pantomime. When he fights, he throws big barrelling punches like he’s channelling the spirit of Andre the Giant in a WWF wrestling match. What a huge amount of fun it is to see Arnold Schwarzenegger having such a huge amount of fun.
Unfortunately, Arnie’s turn in The Iron Mask is brief. In fact, there are few elements of The Iron Mask that do work, and none of the positive stuff is exploited to its full potential. There’s Jackie Chan, inactive for much of the runtime, a rowdy rabble of pirates but a complete absence of swashbuckling and a couple of interesting fight sequences between characters that you’ll really struggle to care about.
The Iron Mask, from director and co-writer Oleg Stepchenko and writers Dmitry Paltsev and Aleksey Petrukhin, is the sequel to the 2014 movie Forbidden Kingdom/Forbidden Empire/Viy (depending on where you watch it). Like that movie (which is briefly recapped at the beginning of The Iron Mask so not to worry if you haven’t seen it), this is a period fantasy action movie about the adventures of cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng).
This time, Green finds himself caught up in a dispute in a Chinese province between a witch and a Princess and a powerful Tsar with the magic dragon’s seal pendant. Miss Dudley (Anna Churina) is trying to track him down and soon becomes embroiled in the action. Green is kidnapped and all signs point to a final showdown between the townspeople and the witch’s evil forces.
The Iron Mask, then, is pitched somewhere between The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, but lands some distance from either one. This deflated epic does deliver on scale but fails to come to life beyond that.
The story feels episodic and pieced together, which, when combined with the languid pacing, gives the whole film an unfocused, meandering feel. There’s very little fun to be found on the screen, leaving scenes to drag out over a frustrating amount of time, usually achieving little more than nudging the story along to nowhere in particular at all.
The climactic end battle perhaps best encapsulates why The Iron Mask doesn’t really work. It’s a huge sequence with some impressive CG world building. But the characters don’t physically interact with that impressive world in a convincing way. None of the sequences feel like they’ve been put together quite right. The character decision making is odd. The big finale ends up fussy, chaotic and far too long.
For a film released in 2020, it’s odd to see so many effects that seem to be aimed at exploiting 3D. In the 2D screening I attended they were really striking, as was the focus on showcasing visual effects in general. It’s a film preoccupied with chasing down trends that passed several years ago.
The cast wrestle with the material to varying degrees of success. As Green, Jason Flemyng plays the character with a reserved, dignified quality, which is perhaps for the best given that he’s given little so little to do. Elsewhere performances are undermined by strange dubbing choices.
There are slithers of entertainment scattered throughout. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a joy. The weird gas-powered steampunk robot guys are very cool. These brief flashes of the film coming to life offer little insights into the potential The Iron Mask had.
What does for Stepchenko’s film, ultimately, is that it’s just so dull. It has all the ingredients of a romp but when it comes together it’s very grey and completely lifeless. The Iron Mask, then, is a bloated, stale misfire.
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