The Iron Mask (Tayna pechati drakona)

Russia/China (2019) Dir. Oleg Stepchenko

Marketing in cinema is everything. Get that wrong and you can kiss goodbye to all the hard work of the filmmaker turning a profit, no matter how good the film might or might not be. This Chinese-Russian co-production exemplifies the problem of the metaphoric selling of ice to Eskimos

In the 18th century, British cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) is hired by the Peter The Great to make a map of Russia, but discovers the Tsar has been overthrown and is arrested and imprisoned. The real Peter is supposedly incarcerated in the Tower of London – the man claiming to be him (Yuri Kolokolnikov) is hidden behind an iron mask – along with a Chinese master (Jackie Chan).

When a homing pigeon lands in their cell with a letter from Green to his wife, Lady Dudley (Anna Churina), they write a return message calling for help and sent it to her. At the same time Lady Dudley tries to have the Tsar released, Green is pardoned on the condition he makes a map of China. He take a young Chinese boy as his assistant, unaware he is Princess Cheng Lan (Xingtong Yao), who needs to free her kingdom from the tyranny of an evil witch (Li Ma).

Presumably, you might be wondering what this has to do with an Iron Mask, and more importantly, why Arnold Schwarzenegger is on the poster. These are valid questions but the answers aren’t so straightforward (well, the latter is). We’ll get to Arnie in a bit – first there is the matter of what this film is really about.

Director Oleg Stepchenko co-wrote the script with Dmitri Palees and Alexey Petrukhin and because of the huge Chinese investment in it, targeted this film more to that market than a Soviet one. The original title of the film is Viy 2: Journey to China, very loosely influenced by Gogol’s story Viy but to sell it to the Chinese it was re-titled The Mystery Of Dragon Seal, which makes much more sense than The Iron Mask.

This is because the plot actually revolves around the legend of a great dragon in Ancient China whose eyelashes went into the ground and grew as plants that made a healing tea. As the eyelashes needed tending, the dragon selected white wizards for the job, creating a seal with his magic inside it, now is in the hands of the master.

Some wizards got greedy when the tea was used to trade with other countries for riches and tried to control the dragon, defeating the white wizards and enslaving the dragon in a cave. The master and the princess were imprisoned on opposite sides of the world, whilst the witch who led the dark wizards’ rebellion now poses as the princess, using a mask of her face to fool the people of the kingdom and rule over them.

Bugger all to do with iron masks, but the selling point of the film is the involvement of two A-listers in Arnie and Chan. Except, neither really “stars” in it – Arnie, as Captain James Cook, is present for about 20 minutes, Jackie a little more, but it wouldn’t have had any attention if Flemyng and Kolokolnikov were on the posters instead.

Not content with misleading the public by promoting two people with lesser screen time, the story is a complete hodge podge of ideas that probably seemed genius on paper but doesn’t hold up so well to scrutiny in execution. It is evident that Stepchenko was keen to create a franchise that would rival Pirates Of The Caribbean from the shared aesthetic of the period setting, the visual bombast of CGI excess and swashbuckling action.

Contrivances in the plot see the three worlds of Russia, England and China converge (the multi-language dialogue is dubbed into English) though little is explained beyond the fact it happened. Holes are also rife, for example: if Cheng Lan is a princess and the master’s daughter, wouldn’t that make him a king or emperor? And if the witch knew about the seal, why didn’t she just take it from the master before having him imprisoned?

Of course, this isn’t expected to matter, as the real draw is the showdown between action heavyweights Jackie and Arnie. That it might have happened in a Hollywood blockbuster and not a Russian film seems like a waste but it’s on film so that should be enough. The scene itself is fun but more comedy than an epoch making centrepiece, not to mention a real clash of styles, that even Chan’s own stunt team couldn’t make work.

Luckily, there are other martial arts fights to compensate, including Cheng Lan facing off against the witch where she is essentially fighting herself. This is probably where the SFX are at its best, otherwise the overuse of CGI for both internal and external locations and backgrounds are poorly rendered, and the dragon in the climax is about 20 years out of date. At least the little Russian flying monkey creature is a little more credible.

It has to be said the casting is also quite bizarre: an Austrian and a Russian both portray British people, a 37-year old plays a young princess also easily mistaken for a teenage boy, and late Dutch actor Rutger Hauer has a very brief cameo as a Russian! Charles Dance also shows up for a scene or two as Lord Dudley, the rest of the cast unlikely to be known outside of China and Russia.

With a less overreaching and convoluted story, The Iron Mask might have been the rip-roaring adventure flick it aspires to be, but collapses under the weight of trying too hard to compete with Hollywood. If Jackie Chan and Arnie squaring off fails to be the highlight of the film, you know it is doomed. It’s not entirely unwatchable though; younger viewers might be kinder to it as escapist hokum, whilst older eyes will only see its obvious, and sad, shortcomings.