The Iron Mask 2019 ****


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.

The Legend of The Holy Drinker 1988 ****


Rutger Hauer’s favourite amongst his own movies was untypical of his output; working with the esteemed Ermanno Olmi of Tree of Wooden Clogs fame, he gives a quiet and understated performance in this adaptation of Joseph Roth’s slim novel. Hauer plays Kartak, a homeless man in 1930’s Paris who is leant money by a stranger (Anthony Quayle) on the condition that he repays it when he can. Of course, that’s not easy for an alcoholic, and his struggle to find the strength within himself to repay the cash has a clear and simple allegorical strength. One of Hauer’s biggest fans, critic Dilys Powell, was horrified by the direction his career took in the 1980’s and 90’s; a decent into B movie hell through random vehicles such as Blind Fury, Salute to the Jugger and Split Second. The Legend of the Holy Drinker was developed for Marcello Mastroianni, then offered to Robert De Niro; no less an actor that either man on his day, Hauer excels as the fabled alcoholic here in this quiet, often wordless film, somewhat ironically given that he was the promotions man for Guinness in a series of expensive adverts at the time.

The Osterman Weekend 1989 ****


It must be something of a surprise to those who knew the late actor Rutger Hauer to read obituaries like this ( which show almost no knowledge of the man or his films. Hauer came to prominence as a cinema actor of phenomenal power, working on a series of collaborations with Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven such as Turkish Delight and Soldier of Orange, both of which are covered elsewhere in this blog. His celebrated turn in The Legend of the Holy Drinker is probably his most mature work, but the stardom that he gained from villianous turns opposite Sylvester Stallone in Nighthawks or in The Hitcher made him a bankable enough name to get him a role in Sam Peckinpah’s final film The Osterman Weekend. Adapted from Robert  “Bourne Identity” Ludlum’s book, it’s a Big Brother-type story of various espionage agents holed up in a remote house where micro-surveillance systems have been employed. Hauer plays tv journalist John Tanner, who is being manipulated at arms length by CIA chief Maxwell Danforth. It’s one of Hauer’s most substantial roles, with an ahead-of-its-time conceit and great support from John Hurt, Dennis Hopper and Craig T Nelson. The script is a little muddled, with writer Alan Sharp amongst those fighting Peckinpah’s famed desire for self-sabotage. That none of the above films get even a single mention in the above obituary suggests that Peckinpah’s pessimism was justified ; The Osterman Weekend nails the idea of media manipulation, and its concerns are still relevant today.


The Sisters Brothers 2017 ****


Even given the lack of public appetite for Westerns, the complete disappearance of Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers at the box-office demonstrated a notable and regrettable gap between quality and appreciation; this is an entertaining, mainstream film that almost nobody saw. Audiard’s A Prophet was such a breakthrough movie that his English –language debut was certain to draw top talent; based on a novel by Patrick deWitt, Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly play Charlie and Eli Sisters, two assassins on the trail of gold in the U.S. circa 1851. Rogue One’s Riz Ahmed plays Warm, a man who has created a formula which, added to bodies of water with gold ore nearby, turns bright green; a licence to print money if carefully applied, but care is short in these territories. There’s a notable taste of Old West harshness when Charlie swallows a spider and the venom causes him some distress; the world is a dangerous place in Audiard’s world view, and survival is as much as a man might hope to gain. The Sisters Brothers is violent, bleakly funny, spikey and evokes the best of Sergio Leone; Jake Gyllenhaal, Rutger Hauer, Alison Tolman and Carol Kane round out an accomplished cast. Perhaps The Sisters Brothers was too rich for audiences; an audience watching at home would do well to put their phones away and immerse themselves in this epic, original story of greed and grizzly bears.

The Hitcher 1986 ***


A neat complement to The Terminator in terms of unstoppable, unworldly villains, The Hitcher is a road movie that exudes menace, and rises to some nasty business within a fairly conventional story. C Thomas Howell is Jim Halsey, whose cross-country drive is turned into a nightmare by John Ryder, a hitch-hiker with a penchant for death. Played by Rutger Hauer, Ryder plays a cat and mouse game with Jim, with waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) unfortunate enough to end up as one of the pawns. Robert Harmon’s thriller, from a script by Eric Red, delivers plenty of automotive action and violence, plus a terrific bad-guy from Hauer, but also visits some truly dark places; Nash’s end is still one of the most shocking deaths in cinema.

Soldier of Orange 1977 ***


Before he went to Hollywood for Robocop and Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven was on a roll in his native Holland, and his five collaborations with actor Rutger Hauer all stand up vividly today. Soldier of Orange is the story of a group of students and their adventures during WWII, with Hauer’s Erik alongside Jeroen Krabbe as Guus, Derek de Lint as Alex and Dolf de Vries as Jack, with Edward Fox and Susan Penhaligon attest to the presence of some British production money. Verhoeven can be relied upon for battles, violence, sex and vigorous storytelling, and Soldier of Fortune provides him with the materials he needs to fashion a historically sensible epic of life during wartime.

Nighthawks 1980 ***


Riding high on the back of Rocky, Sylvester Stallone didn’t find a second franchise until First Blood; Nighthawks was originally planned as a French Connection sequel until it was tailored to Stallone’s tough guy persona. Directed by Bruce Malmuth, Nighthawks sees NYC cop Deke DaSilva tracking down ruthless terrorist Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer), with assistance from Billy Dee Williams and the late Nigel Davenport. Nighthawks is a good little action film, not overblown and with some tense sequences, including a nightclub shootout and a memorably efficient ending. Wulfgar’s character is particularly interesting with a clinical rationale for his actions and a belief that his brand of terrorism equals liberation in the long run. He gets short shrift from a bearded Stallone, making for a gripping, involving cat and mouse game.

Flesh + Blood 1985 ***


With Paul Verhoeven at the film, flesh and blood are onscreen in copious quantities in this impressively serious minded barbarian movie. The Dutch director’s first English language film reunites him for the fifth time with star Rutger Hauer,  as mercenary Martin who takes refuge in a medieval stronghold in Europe circa 1501. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the princess that Martin has designs on, with the director pulling no punches about how she uses her sexuality to survive. Flesh + Blood had a notoriously difficult production, with Verhoeven and Hauer never working again together, and the details of plague, disease and sickness gives the production an unusually realistic feel. But given that Verhoeven’s headed for Hollywood and Robocop the day after the film was completed, it’s clearly the work of a major talent with technical skill and attitude to burn.

Turkish Delight 1973 ****


A love story of extraordinary frankness, Paul Verhoeven’s international breakthrough rode in the back of Last Tango in Paris sexual notoriety, but it’s a much more compressed, tightly woven tale with a refreshing lack on sentimentality. Selfish sculptor Eric Do Vonk (Rutger Hauer) takes up with Olga (Monique van de Ven), and the two of them set out to defy authority and convention with a steamy, no-holds barred affair. Hardly a conventional love-story, Turkish Delight is a rare consideration of romance that never goes soppy; the still-shocking ending leaves little time for tears, just a tacit admission of the mortality that we all share.