The Iron Mask has one selling point that any trailer you may have seen for it is very keen to force down your throat: In this film Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger are going to have a fight. The screen time given over to this event in the promotional material would have the less cynical of us believe that this fight makes up roughly 90 of the films 120 minute run-time. It shouldn’t surprise you to find out this isn’t the case. What did surprise me though was what a confusing mess of colliding storylines, bizarre dubbing and truly awful CG waits for the viewer tempted in by the Arnie Vs. Jackie Chan top of the card billing.
The Iron Mask (or Journey to China: The Mystery of Iron Mask or the on-screen title The Mystery of the Dragon Seal) is the sequel to Forbidden Kingdom (or Forbidden Empire (!)), a 2014 fantasy horror film about English cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) who meets a bunch of monsters whilst setting out to explore the East, through Transylvania and beyond. On one level the sequel continues this vibe with Green now travelling even more easterly still, into China, encountering an evil witch who is using dragon tears to make tea. Or something? He’s joined by a dreadful CG monkey and a Chinese princess disguised as a boy. Eventually they reach tea town and there’s a big fight.
This main narrative takes up probably 85% of the film, and is a hokey fantasy film that’s poorly acted, poorly directed and very obviously written with a Chinese audience in mind. The most entertaining aspect of the film is the insane dubbing that’s going on. As far as I can tell actors are speaking in either English, Russian or Chinese with very little to none of the actual onset dialogue left intact. Jonathan Green seems to be poorly dubbed by his own actor in the language he is speaking on set. Beyond the main cast there seems to be one actor doing all the male bit parts and one woman doing all the female and children’s voices which leads to some unintentionally hilarious crowd scenes where it sounds like two extremely verbose by-standers are having very complicated mental breakdowns just off-screen.
Green and friend’s globe-trotting adventure into China is over long, boring and features endless shots of some of the worst CG I’ve seen in a film in decades. We’re talking PlayStation 2 cut-scene levels of bad. Along the way there are blink and you miss them cameos from Rutger Hauer and Charles Dance and at one point a Russia v. China dance-off breaks out, a welcome relief from the poorly dubbed exposition that every character spews endlessly throughout.
Obviously, the elephants in the room here are Arnie and Chan. See how I’ve made you wade through the rest of this review to get to this part? It’s a lesson in suspense that the film-makers should really have taken on board, but instead they blow their screen-time with these two in the first half an hour. Neither are heard from again except for a bit of weird dancing Jackie Chan does and a minute-long epilogue where the two old pros stand in front of a green screen and gawp at a cloud.
So, anyway here’s the deal: Arnie is the warden of the Tower of London and Jackie Chan has been locked up because reasons. Arnie is maybe a bit of a bastard (but probably not) and gets his kicks by challenging inmates to wrestling matches. If they best him and climb up a mini tower they get out. Whilst the film-makers maybe had Jackie Chan for a long weekend Schwarzenegger seems to have stuck around for at least a full week of shooting and is thoroughly enjoying himself swanning around in a uniform, getting into scraps and bellowing at people that doing exercise is a really, really good thing.
Inevitably Jackie Chan escapes and comes face to face with the warden. If you keep in mind that Schwarzenegger is 72 and Chan 66 and that both of their best days are far, far behind them then the five minutes of fighting we get is actually quite a good time. Yes, most of the actual combat is done by some CG metal chains and yes, they spend more time looking at each other than they do actually scrapping, but both seem to be at least having fun and some of the jokes land. It is, however, an island of entertainment in a sea of dross and absolutely not worth the price of admission.
The Iron Mask is a strange film that no-one but the most committed of straight-to-DVD explorers would have heard of were it not for the stunt casting. There’s a photo on the film’s iMDB page showing what seems to be a bunch of financial backers posing for photos with the films ‘stars’ and this, above all else, seems to be the reason for this film’s existence.
Sadly, this isn’t even the best film Arnie and Jackie have starred in. That honour goes to Around the World in 80 Days, and if you’ve had the misfortune of sitting through that balloon wreck then you know just how bad this film must be.