When movie theaters shut down nationwide earlier this year as a result of COVID, cinephiles worried about when and where they’d get to see 2020’s big blockbusters. Sadly, major tentpole releases ended up either bumped to vague 2021 dates (new James Bond film No Time To Die and Marvel superhero flick Black Widow) or shipped directly to streaming video (Disney’s live-action Mulan and Warner Bros.’ super-sequel Wonder Woman 1984). What got lost in the chaos, however, was the flood of good, old-fashioned crap movies that make up the bulk of the annual cinema schedule.
Very early this year, for example, Internet surfers were gobsmacked to see a trailer for Iron Mask, an utterly bat-crap-crazy-looking period action flick featuring Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger beating each other up amid some wild-looking 18th-century contraptions. What was this, and where did it come from? Fans of ridiculous films couldn’t wait to find out. Unfortunately, the film vanished into the aether alongside dozens of other would-be box-office hits and misses. The film has just resurfaced on pay-per-view streaming, though, and is a must-watch for lovers of oddball action.
From its trailer, Iron Mask looked like some bizarro steampunk adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic adventure novel The Man in The Iron Mask. It isn’t. Boy, is it not. But describing what it is isn’t exactly an easy task. It’s actually a joint Russian/Chinese co-production that cost $50 million to make (a princely sum for a non-
Hollywood film). It’s a sequel to director Oleg Stepchenko’s 2014 sci-fi fantasy Forbidden Empire (known in Russia as Viy), about a British cartographer/inventor/adventurer (Jason Flemyng from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and “Primeval”) who crosses paths with some bloodsucking monsters in Transylvania. That film was (veeery loosely) based on Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 mythological horror novella Viy. Although the film got savaged by critics and saw no theatrical release outside of its home country, it was the highest-grossing Russian movie in 2014. So, naturally, sequel.
Iron Mask starts by taking us back to the early 1700s and introducing us to an ancient Chinese wizard played by martial arts icon Jackie Chan. Seems that, centuries ago, this guy—known only as “Master”—invented tea by trimming the eyebrows of a giant dragon. (Hey, I’m only telling you what the movie told me.) At some point the British Empire showed up to hijack the Chinese tea industry and locked the immortal Master up in the Tower of London—alongside a dude in an iron mask, who just happens to be (wait for it) … the secretly deposed Russian Czar Peter the Great (Yuri Kolokolnikov). The Master and Pete are lorded over by a noble brute of a warden, played by—yup—Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the same time, our hero cartographer Jonathan Green (Flemyng, who can hardly be glimpsed amid the scrum of characters) is traveling through Russia with a skinny Chinese “boy” who happens to be Jackie Chan’s kung fu daughter and the missing Dragon Princess (whatever that means). Also, he’s got a cutesy baby vampire with him. (No, seriously.) Eventually, most of these people (including Green’s wife and a bunch of pirates) end up in China fighting an army of super-power robot soldiers and, yeah, a dragon.
Iron Mask is overfilled to bursting with wild action, outrageous costumes and gigantic sets. It’s like a turducken stuffed with glitter, fireworks and a baker’s dozen of Kinder Joy eggs. The film has no central character or plotline. It’s kinda like watching six movies at once. But what it lacks in narrative coherence, it makes up for in pure, bonkers entertainment. Witnessing the well-aged Jackie and Arnold punch it out (with plenty of stuntman, wirework and FX assistance) is more fun than it has a right to be. The film’s frequent CGI effects aren’t exactly Hollywood-level realistic, but they give the film a silly, Clash of the Titans texture. In fact, Iron Mask feels like some unlikely shotgun wedding between an old Ray Harryhausen fantasy, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series and Christophe Gans’ 2001 art-house/martial arts cult flick Brotherhood of the Wolf. It’s a ridiculous mess of a movie. And as such, it might just be the perfect movie for 2020. [ ]