Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 14, 2020)
On the back cover of 2019’s Iron Mask, the movie promises “action’s greatest stars!” Sure – if we travel in time back to 1999.
Nowadays, however, the combo of Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t pack quite the same punch. Still, they boast enough star power to intrigue the potential viewer – or at least this potential viewer.
Set in the early 18th century, British cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) receives an order from Russian Czar Peter the Great (Yuri Kolokolnikov) to map the eastern expanse of that nation. As it happens, the leader finds himself stuck in a London prison, and Green does what he can to push for the monarch’s release.
In the meantime, Green takes new assistant Cheng Lan (Helen Yao) on the mission to create a new map. This leads to various adventures along the way.
Though you’ll find no reference to it on the Blu-ray’s packaging, Mask acts as a sequel to 2014’s Forbidden Empire - aka Viy or other titles, dependent on your location. I never heard of Empire until I did research for this review, but apparently it sold a lot of tickets in Russia, and that success prompted this sequel.
In a potentially helpful move, Mask comes with a recap of the first movie’s events. Don’t expect this to matter much in the greater scheme of things, however, because Mask gives us such a borderline incoherent tale that all the backstory in the world won’t help.
And boy, do we get a lot of backstory! The movie launches with exposition that tells of wizards and a dragon whose eyelashes make tea.
Alrighty then! As soon as we learn this “history”, Mask abandons those conceits, not to revisit them for quite some time.
Instead, Mask favors a mix of plot concepts, all of which connect in a loose manner but never in a genuinely meaningful way. The “story” feels like a conglomeration of narrative ideas melded in a blender.
Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t work. Mask simply makes no damned sense a whole lot of the time, and whatever potential positives it maintains can’t overcome its incoherence.
By “potential positives” I mean the flick’s action scenes, as one might expect those to offer material lively enough to compensate for the story flaws. Unfortunately, the martial arts sequences feel stale and never become interesting enough to make us forget what a mess the rest of the movie is.
I’ve not seen all that many martial arts movies, but even I get a “been there, done that” impression from the action on display here. What looked novel 20 years ago now seems old hat, and Mask finds no new ways to spin these battles.
At 65, Chan’s days as a vibrant action star seem firmly in the past. While he moves well for a man his age, he clearly lacks the abilities he once possessed, and Mask resorts to cutaways and doubles to hide his decline.
It doesn’t work, and his matchup with 72-year-old Schwarzenegger feels like a broken hip waiting to happen. Both still enjoy enough residual charm that their fight – as clunky as it tends to seem due to all those stunt doubles and camera tricks – becomes the closest thing to a highlight I can find here.
That’s thin gruel, though. Nearly incoherent, dull and pointless, Mask flops in almost all possible ways.