AKA JOURNEY TO CHINA: THE MYSTERY OF THE IRON MASK, THE MYSTERY OF THE DRAGON SEAL, VIY 2: JOURNEY TO CHINA
AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL: NOW, from SIGNATURE ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 120 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
The Dragon once used her eyelashes to cause China to be full of tea plants that can heal. She also created the White Wizards to look after the eyelashes and and gave The Master and his daughter, Chen Lan, the job of trimming the eyelashes as well as The Dragon Seal. But some of the wizards turned bad and, led by the Witch, sent the Master and Chen Lan to be imprisoned separately while the Seal was hidden and the Dragon fell asleep. In the same cell as the Master is Peter The Great, Tsar of Russia, who’s been deposed. Cartographer Jonathan Green is told to map the Far East by the impostor pretending to be Peter, and is joined by a Chinese woman pretending to be a boy, while a message from Jonathan to his girlfriend Miss Dudley ends up in the hands of Peter who also sets off for China, along with Miss Dudley, where the Witch rules the land with tyranny….
If my synopsis sounds convoluted then I apologise, but I spent some time attempting to make it at least partly understandable before giving up. If a film can have too much plot, at least in its first half, than this is it; rather than being enjoyably unpredictable, it just seems like they crammed far too much into far too little a space of screen time and I actually had to pause my screener a couple of times to make sure I’d taken in what had just happened, something that was difficult when most scenes were incredibly short. But then there’s a hell of a lot to take in in this barmy adventure movie, not least being the fact that, despite the UK release title being The Iron Mask [but put away any thoughts of Alexandre Dumas], the mask in it isn’t anywhere near central to the proceedings. Nor is it any any kind of mystery despite another title being Journey To China: Mystery Of Iron Mask – we know who’s wearing it and the mask has no magical properties. The film is actually a sequel to a 2014 effort called the Viy, also known as Forbidden Kingdom [but not the similarly titled 2008 flick also with Jackie Chan], and based on the same story that inspired Mario Bava’s horror classic Black Sunday. And then there’s the small matter of the poster art which tells us that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan and Charles Dance are the stars. Actually Jason Flemyng plays the lead character, and other performers have much bigger parts than the named ‘stars’. Chan and Schwarzenegger do feature heavily in the first third but then disappear until right at the end except for a few shots of Chan’s character, while Dance is only in a few small moments and the same can be said for Rutger Hauer, in his last screen appearance. The one who suffers most is Chan; here we have a movie full of action, some of it of the martial arts variety, yet Chan, who may be getting on in years now but who we all know can still bust some moves, spends most of it chained to a bloody wall!
And yet I don’t want it to sound like I really disliked The Iron Mask; it’s so ridiculous and goofy that I couldn’t help but not have a good time in places. For example, this is a movie where one character is so obviously a woman yet the guy that she’s with, a person that we’re told is of great intelligence, fails to notice for what’s obviously a very long time. Where poison fails to work on somebody and the reason the would-be victim gives for this is that people have been trying to poison him all his life. Where everyone heads for China and seem to all encounter each other very quickly and easily. Where somebody asks of someone else, “are you the Russian Tsar”? and that other person replies in an American accent,“of course I am, don’t you see that”? The language aspect takes some getting used to. It looks like the film was shot in English, dubbed into Chinese and/or Russian, then converted back into English. However, not only did they sometimes get different performers to dub characters played by others, but the audio is done so badly that it’s often out of synch with people’s lips! I’m astonished that in this day and age that this was thought acceptable, yet you could also say that it adds an extra layer of fun and it won’t be a problem for many of us oldies who remember the days when so many non-English language productions were only available in dubbed form, in particular those ‘70s ‘chop socky’ films which I happily admit I still prefer watching in the old English dubs. But it is strange, so much about this movie is strange. It has its intentionally humorous moments, and there were times the Hong Kong movie buff may be expecting Stephen Chow to show up, but most of its silliest things appear to have been meant seriously.
We start with no less than nine different logos, something which had me in stitches. The prologue gives us a lot to take in, but it’s interesting visually as, for a couple of minutes, the camera sweeps all over the place while the events described are represented by clay-like figures possibly inspired by the Terracotta Warriors if no doubt done this way primarily for budgetry reasons, though it’s odd how we’re told that the Master and his daughter Chen Lan are imprisoned on “opposite sides of the world”, yet Moscow and London are hardly that. The on-screen title is The Mystery of The Dragon Seal, then we’re in “England, Tower of London”, and this isn’t the first place introduced in this fashion. All chained together in a single cell are Peter, the Master [Chan] who soon starts teaching Peter martial arts, and a very old guy who soon perishes, it’s implied, because of the Master’s exertions. A carrier pigeon bringing a message leads us into some flashbacks which I assume are from the first movie, with Jonathan being caught in bed with the daughter of Lord Dudley by the man himself, and being sent by Peter to Transylvania to do battle with a many-eyed monster called the V, and his little flying cohorts which look like the Dorats from Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah, only they have just one head. Jonathan also goes to Moscow where everyone’s beards are being cut off, to look for Peter, but instead he encounters an impostor instead and is thrown into prison. Dudley’s influence leads to Jonathan being released, but the fake Peter order him to go and map the Far East. Along with Jonathan for the ride is Chen Lan who’s also freed from prison, and she soon proves very useful in dealing with bandits, along with one of the small winged demons which surprisingly doesn’t assume the role of comic relief. But the writing seems very rushed, and so much is rather tenuously linked or seems to happen by chance. It’s possible that I missed why, for example, the Seal is hidden in the Tower right near the Master, but it would still seem like a stupid piece of scripting anyway.
Never mind, the captain of the Tower guard is James Hook, the character played by Schwarzenegger, and he and Chan, reuniting after the rather underrated Around The World In 80 Days [which seems to be referenced here], really do display a lot of chemistry together in their several scenes together, both icons looking like they’re enjoying themselves and Schwarzenegger giving one of his solid comic performances. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know that they have a fight. It’s an odd one. Even when both stars were in their prime, I think that it would have been difficult to craft a convincing and exciting brawl between the two very different stars, so choreographer Jun He really had his work cut out for him. However, the result is about as good as you’d expect from such a scene in 2020, with a few striking moves from Chan and good use of a very intricate, if probably fantastical, set depicting the inside of the Tower for the two to mess around in while chained to each other throughout. Constantly stopping the action so that each one can big up the other one up is a tad annoying, but there are some very funny moments, like when Hook, proud of his collection of famous artifacts, tells the Master that he’s just picked up the helmet of Genghis Khan, only for the Master to tell him it’s just an incense pot, which it turns out to be when turned over. But unfortunately we soon leave these two to focus on everyone else. We already know that Jonathan and Chen Lan are traveling to China, but they aren’t the only ones; soon Peter escapes from the Tower in a reasonably exciting carriage dash, to be followed onto a ship by Miss Dudley. The Pirates Of The Caribbean vibe that’s been simmering comes to the fore for a bit, though the main aquatic set piece involving the ship, huge rocks and a tidal wave never gets the blood going because there clearly wasn’t nearly enough money to make such a scene look much good.
China is now ruled by the Witch who’s taken the form of Chen Lan, terrorising the people with technology disguised as sorcery, potential for some cool steampunk stuff which doesn’t materialise. Of course it’s hard not to uncomfortably chuckle at the irony of a Chinese film that has the populace ruled over by a repressive, lying government, though the expected pandering is absent apart from a sickening closing scene which might have some viewers struggling to stop themselves from vomiting. Chan and Schwarzenegger do eventually return, but after all the action has finished. It’s really Helen Yao [Chinese Zodiac] who gets the most chance to shine fight-wise, defeating lots of bad guys and demonstrating great agility even though some of her leaps have been edited together and she’s clearly not particularly adept at martial arts. Her fight with Narupornkamol Chaisang is okay seeing as neither actress can probably fight, while the involvement of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team means that there are enough cool leaps and falls in the several mass skirmishes to remind one of the glory days. The Dark Wizards are rather cool; they wear strong, bulky costumes all with different powers, from controlling electricity and magnetism to having a wheel on a back which deafens all opponents. Director Oleg Stepchenko, like most modern filmmakers, likes to cut the action fast, too fast in some instances, though we can still see what’s going on. Much more irritating is that too many scenes feel more like fragments of scenes than actual scenes, as if Stepchenko and his co-writers Dmitri Palees and Alexey Petrukhin originally had a film which was too long and hacked it down even though the result still lasted two hours. Maybe things would have made more sense if they hadn’t done this – though I doubt it.
In the end though the biggest problem is one common to many modern productions that over-stretch themselves; the use of very poor CGI. The Dragon is surprisingly impressive; the compositing isn’t great but the design is nice and the creature moves in a rather graceful, yet still fast, way. On the other hand the digital shots of cities are quite simply atrocious, and interiors often look sterile and don’t feel at all like they’re the actual insides of buildings. Once again, we have proved to us how ugly bad CGI is. Yet, despite this, there’s usually something to chuckle at just around the corner, such as this excerpt from a romantic letter to a loved one, “I often recall the quiet evenings we shared in England when you and I alone would study geography – they were, in a word, magical”. A few things are hurled at the viewer to remind him or her that the film was shot in 3D. Fleming is an amusingly whimpish hero who asks for the bathroom when things heat up, and both Dance and Hauer do brighten up their tiny amount of screen time. Even though the man himself is somewhat wasted, I enjoyed The Iron Mask more than some of Chan’s other recent offerings. It’s a mess, but has a rather childlike, innocent [the ‘12’rating is totally unnecessary] sense of storytelling and adventure about it which is rather appealing.