You’d be forgiven for not knowing, especially seeing as the marketing makes no effort to explain it, but The Iron Mask is quite a different beast than it looks at first glance.  Seeing as the poster, trailer and advance PR all centres around the appearances of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan, you’d expect them to be the mainstay of this story. However, it’s somewhat misleading.

The film, originally released as Viy 2: Journey to China (amidst a slew of regional title variations) is actually a sequel to the similarly broadly monikered Forbidden Kingdom (aka Forbidden Empire or Viy), a whimsically silly tale of English cartographer, Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) who becomes embroiled in the supernatural plight of a small backwater Ukrainian village. As the first film is largely forgettable, save only for several impressive creature effect sequences, it’s handy that the film’s events are recounted in a flashback at the beginning of The Iron Mask.

This time around, the story not only follows the continuing adventures of Green, now on his way to China, by command of the Russian Tsar. In tow he has recently freed prisoner, Chen (Xingtong Yao), heir apparent to the throne of the White Wizards, and daughter of Master (Jackie Chan). Meanwhile, the real Tsar, Peter the Great, has been clad in the titular iron mask and imprisoned in the Tower of London. But after escaping with Green’s wife, (Anna Churina) the pair head by way of a pirate ship to rescue Green and help restore the Kingdom.

Needless to say, the plot of this film is hardly worth any form of scrutiny. Much like the previous series entry, The Iron Mask has the loosest skeleton of a story, held together with the barest minimum of dialogue. What raises it above its predecessor is the inclusion of Jackie Chan and his martial artist company’s prowess. When all else fails, the film’s fight scenes are absolutely worth the effort and the much-touted clash between Chan and Schwarzenegger is about as much fun as you could hope for.

Which isn’t to say the film is a total loss, rather it’s a movie full of lofty aims, and no idea how to script a story to fulfil them. The movie takes abundant cues from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, even going so far as to borrow the woman disguised-as-a-pirate subplot from Dead Man’s Chest, but then also casting that series’ alumnus Martin Klebba as the pirate ship captain. If you look harder you’ll see ideas and moments cribbed from various Musketeer films and even The Lord of the Rings. But despite all of this a coherent story seems to have been an afterthought, and characterisation is clearly an unknown concept.

While some of the cast do their damnedest to try to look vaguely interested while reading their lines, some fare better than others, and the inconsistent dubbing helps as much as it hinders. Especially when Rutger Hauer appears for a blink and you’ll miss it cameo, but with his handful of lines clearly re-dubbed by someone else in post-production.  That said, Arnie and Jackie give their all to their cinematic clash, mugging and quipping between blows and stunts. Flemyng particularly seems to have realised he’s onto a lucrative deal with this film series, and even Charles Dance goes just a little better than phoning his day’s worth of work in from some English country manor house.

It’s a frequently silly, and occasionally dull experience, peppered with magical moments. And yet for all its faults it’s hard to dislike this charming but vapid fantasy schlock.

Available on Digital HD Fri 10 Apr 2020