It’s not uncommon for a shoddy movie to promise the presence of big-name stars, only for them to barely show up for a second. Every supermarket has a bargain bin full of hack crime thrillers in which “Academy Award winner Gary Oldman” is all over the box, but really he only showed up for one day of filming to yell for a bit. That brings us to The Iron Mask which, if you believe the marketing, stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan and Charles Dance. It’s not technically a lie, but a sleazy politician would be proud of this degree of spin.
The film is a sequel – though it’s trying very hard to hide it – to the 2014 movie The Forbidden Kingdom. It was a box office smash hit in its native Russia, but barely made a flicker in the West despite the presence of Brit actor Jason Flemyng in the lead role. He reprises that role here as a cartographer stranded east of Russia, journeying to China with someone pretending to be a boy servant, but who is actually Chinese princess Cheng Lan (Yao Xingtong).
Somehow, this is connected to the fact Peter the Great – locked in the eponymous face covering – and an old martial arts master (Jackie Chan) are locked up in the Tower of London. This very British prison is being controlled by someone who looks and sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Me neither.
It’s fair to say that the plot of The Iron Mask is entirely nonsensical. There’s something about a dragon with magic eyelashes, a witch with a collection of faces and soldiers who have weird, apparently supernatural powers. Nothing makes sense in this world, where narrative logic is a fictional concept and the only thing weirder than the story is the preposterously terrible dubbing.
Make no mistake, this is a proper chore of a movie. The dialogue is not only dubbed as if by a bored intern who kept missing their cues, but also sounds as if it has been run through dodgy translation software more than once, creating a sort of bizarrely stilted soup of clichés and incomprehensible one-liners. Schwarzenegger and Chan actually get off easily, waltzing out of the movie after their rather sad, choppily edited punch-up.
If there is any sort of bright spot in the film, it’s Yao Xingtong’s performance, which at least has some sort of energy and charisma to it. She also takes centre stage in the movie’s sole impressive action sequence, fighting away with the sort of speed and energy that is entirely absent from Chan and Schwarzenegger’s face-off. Even she, though, is fully swallowed up by the computerised sheen of the dirt-cheap CGI backdrops, which leave the whole thing feeling dismally artificial – like an old video game.
But frankly, the visual disappointment is the least of the problems with The Iron Mask. It’s a two-hour compendium of dreary performances and half-arsed plotting, refracted through a prism of pound shop fantasy epic tropes and filmmaking of the most grotesque incompetence. All involved deserve far better than this, and one can only imagine that the pay cheques were very generous indeed. I certainly hope so. The alternative is that these people did it out of love for the material – and that would be crazy.
Dir: Oleg Stepchenko
Scr: Oleg Stepchenko, Dmitry Paltsev, Aleksey Petrukhin
Prd: Sergei Bespalov, Jackie Chan, Yingchun Fang, Gleb Fetisov, Peikang La, Aleksey Petrukhin, Sergey Selyanov, Maofei Zhou
DOP: Ivan Gudkov, Man-Ching Ng
Music: Aleksandra Maghakyan
Country: USA, Russia, China
Run time: 117 mins
The Iron Mask is available on digital in the UK from 10th April.