The machinations of the film industry are a wild, complex, and massive endeavor whose huge workforces, boundless imaginations, and can-do attitudes collide time and time again, by a stretch of miracle, to bring us the most dazzling of cinematic expressions. From the no-holds-barred superheroics of studio films to the quiet intimacy of a story told through celluloid, movies have been known to strike the balance of high and popular art, combining aspects of literature, lush visuals, and immersive sounds to somehow transport us to another world. Except, when they aren’t known for that. Iron Mask falls into that category.
Director: Oleg Stepchenko
Release Date: November 24, 2020 (VOD)
Following a PlayStation 2-era animated exposition dump, in which the plight of a great Chinese dragon whose magical powers are fought over by two parties of magicians (one good and one evil, of course), we’re suddenly thrust to England, where an unnamed Master (Jackie Chan) is imprisoned, chained to Peter (Yuri Kolokonikov), the imprisoned czar of Russia. He’s the one bound in the titular iron mask, a la Alexandrew Dumas, which would make sense were he the most major of players in Iron Mask.
But nothing makes sense in Iron Mask.The prisoners--who, by the way, are subject to the whims of jailor James Hook (Arnold Schwarzenegger)--just so happen upon a carrier pigeon bearing a letter from adventurer and self-proclaimed cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemying), whose message was intended for his wife Emma (Anna Churina). Emma somehow manages to enlist Peter in a quest to aid her husband, who travels to the dragon’s village (remember the dragon?) with Cheng Lan (Xiaotong Yao), who is actually the rightful heir of the village’s throne, and the daughter of the England-bound Master.
If my description of Iron Mask‘s premise omitted details or has raised new questions in your mind allow me to put them at rest: You don’t want me to try to explain more of the film to you, and I, frankly, don’t know that I could explain more of the film to you. From the very start, Iron Mask bombards you with so much nonsensical exposition and plot developments you’d be forgiven for not comprehending what exactly goes on in the film, actually a “hidden” sequel to 2014’s Forbidden Kingdom, which released internationally as Viy (and Iron Mask as Viy 2). Perhaps the attempt to market Iron Mask as a standalone film is a part of its indecipherability, but this would be a polite suggestion. Iron Mask is a mess, top to bottom.
For one, it’s a story of massive scale featuring special effects the equivalent of a recent graduate’s YouTube channel, with the sort of hideous color correction and digital backdrops you’d expect in a telenovela. The film lacks inspiration in nearly all of its art direction, with the exception perhaps being the evil golem-like elemental warriors employed by the magicians of the dragon village. They lumber about and play to their video gamelike attributes (one controls mist; the other makes loud noises, and so on) for a few of Iron Mask‘s later fight scenes, of which there are several. None of which are any fun.
Dispelling the illusion an audience might hold that, given the rich history of Chinese martial storytelling, Iron Mask might yield a nugget or two of well-choreographed action are any of the film’s fight scenes. They’re jarring, without impact, and about as satisfying as watching children put on a school play. At least there you can say “Aw, they tried.” I don’t know that anyone in Iron Mask really tried.
The biggest names attached are irrefutably Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose characters interact once or twice and remain largely inconsequential; the Master and the jailor brawl half-heartedly back in England while the “actual story” (whatever that means) plays out in China. I hope both actors received handsome checks for their work.
This not to mention the utter waste of the late, legendary Rutger Hauer, whose cameo as “Ambassador” (not even a name!) wouldn’t be mentionable without the great talent behind the role. Or the droll narration occasionally provided by Lord Dudley, the aristocratic father of Emma. The Lord is played by none other than Charles Dance, whose terrific work on Game of Thrones would feel like a distant hallucination were you to judge the actor by Iron Mask.
The cracks in the facade of Iron Mask are multitude, with laughable dubbing and a clear set of production restrictions brought on by the international venture that absolutely inhibit an abysmal film from becoming, maybe, merely a bad one. Why doesn’t the Master travel to the aid of his daughter, looking to reclaim the power of the dragon and depose the evil charlatan wizards? Wherefrom does the titularly-masked Peter hail from? Why do we care? What bumbling shenanigans allowed Jonathan the cartographer to remain alive for so long, venturing forth so aloof in such dangerous work? I have no answers, because Iron Mask doesn’t give me any. And really, by the end of the film, I didn’t care.