Someday, there will be a trivia question about this movie.
As in, ‘name the film that Jackie Chan [finally] faced off against Arnold Schwarzenegger’. Honestly, I never thought I’d see the day.
Set in the Early 1700s, Iron Mask continues the adventures of cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) of Forbidden Kingdom. While mapping the Russian Far East, Green is arrested and thrown into prison. Locked away, he sends a carrier dove to his loving wife in the hopes that she might rescue him. However, when the letter accidentally ends up in the hands of the prisoners of the Tower of London, they attempt to use this opportunity to their advantage. Re-sending the message to its intended recipient, they write another letter explaining that they can help her find her husband if she helps them escape. After receiving the letter, the woman rushes to the Tower, bent on finding help to save the love of her life.
Directed by Oleg Stepchenko, Iron Mask (or Viy 2: Journey to China) is a blend of fantasy and historical genres that is meant to charm but confuses instead. Don’t get me wrong. There are some excellent ideas within Mask that work to its advantage. An ancient witch hiding her identity and the connection with dragons creates an element of whimsy. A daring prison escape provides some solid action pieces. Even some brief comedy shows what always set Arnie and Chan apart from other action heroes. However, all of these elements end up working against one another due to their constant tonal shifts and plot changes, leaving the viewer frustrated as the credits roll.
Sadly, the most disappointing aspect of the film is the work between icons Chan and Schwarzenegger. The sheer prospect of having those two names in the same film together is both surprising and welcome. Both once pinnacles of the action genre, these are two men who could have (should have?) found their way into a film together 20 years ago and expectations would have been high.
Unfortunately, that was 20 years ago.
While both men still have much to offer in terms of their film careers, to see the 73-year-old Arnie face off against 66-year-old Chan simply misses the energy and enthusiasm that we might have seen in their youth. While funny and entertaining, one can’t help but wonder what might have been had they taken the opportunity to do this when they were closer to their prime.
Having said this though, it’s worth noting that much of the ‘heavy lifting’ is left to actress Yao Xingtong who impresses with her physical skills and speed. As Cheng Lan, Yao Xingtong displays a gift for action set-pieces and keeps the film moving. Again, due to some strange scripting, her role is downplayed until the halfway mark of the film yet she is easily the most memorable part of the story.
Thematically, Iron Mask shifts gears wildly at times. For example, conversations about the perceived threat of scientific thought begin the film… yet then seems to validate those fears by the end of the film. Although, the film does finally seem to settle on the over-arching idea that one can judge the soul of the person by their actions. In other words, as characters such as Peter the Great and the evil witch wear masks that hide their true selves, their behaviour speak to the nature of their intentions and identifies their characters.
On paper, there is much to like about Iron Mask. Even so, the film ultimately thwarts all that good will and frustrates. Despite having some quality pedigree and potential, the film simply does not have enough Iron in its heart to mask its problems.
Iron Mask is available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and VOD on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021.