What Did I Just Actually See? would be a good title for Oleg Stepchenko’s crazy-ass epic, which gets released in whatever’s left of the US and UK on April 10th 2020. Alternative titles include The Mystery of the Iron Mask, The Dragon Seal and most significantly, Viy 2; Journey to China, because this is, in fact, the sequel to Viy, a Russian hit from 2014. Much in the way that the Fast and Furious universe pulls into stars from other cinematic franchises, the Viy brand has pulled in two recognisable crowd-pleasers in Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of whom have producer credits here. It sounds mad as a brush, but if approached correctly, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. There’s fake dragons, black witches, real dragons, flying monkeys and loads of sub-Pirates of the Caribbean CGI of 18th century locations; with no actual blockbusters on the horizon, we’ll just have to make do with this mind-boggling but endearing effort. Did I mention that this film claims to be based on the writings of Gogol?
Some have carped that there’s only a few minutes of the stars here; that’s fake news to be sure, because there’s a good forty minutes or so of wild action featuring Chan and Schwarzenegger; what’s odd is that they feature heavily in the opening of the film and they don’t return until the last couple of scenes. Chan is in his element with some intricate physical comedy; his character, Master, is chained up in the Tower of London by James Hook. Hook is played by the Austrian muscleman-turned-politician, and it’s one of the more oddball efforts of his remarkable career. With his red tunic, mutton chop/moustache combo and bug-eyed silent movie acting style, Schwarzenegger really gives this his all in a highly amusing piece of burlesque. Also locked up with the Master is a mysterious man in an iron mask, and it’s him that we follow on his gaol break, leaving the Master and Hook to fight it out. Did I mention that Hook is using King Arthur’s sword to fight the master? Just one more eye-brow raising detail in a film packed with them.
You’d better enjoy seeing Chan and Schwarzenegger’s Tom and Jerry routine while you can, because the film decides that’s quite enough of that for now and launches into something completely different. The rather charming Jason Flemyng is the actual star here, and this perennially underrated actor shines as Jonathan Green, a cartographer who invents a unique way of measuring distance involving a wheel attached to his carriage. A royal commission puts Green head-to-head with all kinds of computer-generated creatures, with real and fake princesses, dragons and a flying monkey that, once again, resembles boastful bat Bartok from the cartoon Anastasia, a character who seems to be living rent-free inside my head for the last few weeks. Did I mention that there’s musical sequences here?
Ok, so there’s a bit of bait and switch going on here, but be honest, would you be reading this if I’d led with Jason Flemyng and flying monkeys? If you’ve been carried along by the unfamiliar energy of such fanciful expensive international epics like 47 Ronin or The Great Wall, you’ll get the same kind of rush here; lots of strange creatures and eye candy, all the weirder because it’s highly unlikely that you’ve seen the first movie so there’s no context at all. That’s a strength here; with no idea what’s happening and no chance to find out, you can just sit back and enjoy the show, with everyone from Charles Dance to Rutger Hauer roped in to mumble about dragon’s eyelashes and wear silly costumes. Those of us who enjoy brainless entertainment with find that The Iron Mask is pretty much the only show in town this Easter; it’s a daft, family-friendly romp that’s sold on the back of two big names, but provides plenty of silly fun for those keen for a fix of fresh-air escapism. As William Hurt’s character says in The Big Chill; ‘Sometimes you just have to let art wash over you…’
Signature Entertainment presents The Iron Mask on Digital HD in the UK from 10th April 2020.