The Iron Mask review – an all-time terrible film

Don't let the appearance of Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger fool you into watching this punishing excuse for entertainment

In 2004, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared together in what is now considered to be one of the worst movies ever made. Around the World in 80 Days was a huge critical and commercial flop – the sort of bad blockbuster that had you questioning the entire business of filmmaking, and the sanity of those who chose to appear. No wonder Schwarzenegger took a six-year career hiatus in the aftermath of its release.

Now, sixteen years later, these action icons have joined forces in order to repeat the mistake all over again. This time the result is even worse: an abysmal, teeth-grindingly boring “blockbuster” of cheap excess, The Iron Mask – like the cinematic equivalent of a fake designer handbag – is another venture in the shady world of co-financed, international movie-making, where mysterious benefactors from around the world – Russia! China! – scrape together the money in a bid to make the most globally appealing title possible. But these films, impossible to watch without thinking of words like “hedge fund” and “tax write-off,” almost always leave a bad taste.

Clearly at some point in this one’s pre-production process somebody suggested (perhaps jokingly) that it’d be great for the marketing campaign if Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger could, you know, fight one another. Forget about how – or why. Yet this absurd idea somehow solidified to the point that Chan actually appears, fleetingly, as a kind of martial arts wizard; Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, is cast as “James Hook,” the English (but Austrian-accented) prison warden in the Tower of London. How these characters relate to the plot, I couldn’t tell you.

It can be tempting to ironically brand movies like this as “masterpieces.” But this film offers none of the pleasures you’d associate with the wish-fulfilling notion of two screen legends trading blows. Of course if you do manage to get both Chan and Schwarzenegger in your movie, you feature them prominently on the poster. Yet this film, supposedly a sequel to a 2014 film named Viy, has exaggerated their involvement in the marketing all out of proportion: they appear in minor parts towards the beginning for the customary fight (admittedly the best scene), and for about eight seconds at the very end. Charles Dance is also here, for reasons unexplained.

For about 10 minutes the whole mess is fascinating to watch, because how is it possible that a $50 million movie could look and sound this terrible in 2020? But before long the incoherent hi-jinks wear thin and the compulsion to switch off becomes overwhelming, even nauseating. At the halfway mark I was struck by a singular thought: “Is this the worst movie of all time?” I suddenly found new respect for recent one-star atrocities like Cats and Dolittle, which in spite of their flaws have a level of polish this film could only dream of.

Awful digital effects, terrible production design, and some of the worst acting in recent memory only contribute to the two-hour-long nightmare. Lines are not delivered as much as they are stated, out loud, with no emotion or grasp of what is actually being communicated. Much of the dialogue sounds like it’s been improvised on the spot. Then there’s the camera, constantly moving but somehow always placed entirely at random, never quite in the right position. What you’re left with feels like the introductory video you’d encounter in a ride queue at a mid-weight European theme park.

And while the action itself is always artificial and annoying, worse is the story itself, completely impenetrable from the baffling opening animatic to the final, CG dragon-addled showdown. The Iron Mask has no allegiance to any character, or plot thread, unfolding as if somebody saw Shanghai Knights, Mulan, and one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films in a single weekend and challenged themselves to remaking all three at once.

It amounts to a collection of random scenes, connected by a loose voiceover statically read by a map-maker named Jonathan Green, played by Jason Flemyng – the closet thing this film has to a lead. And whilst it’s odd to suggest a film has too many extras, this one manages the great feat of making that into a genuine problem. There are people everywhere, in every moment and every scene, usually without purpose. Did they allow just anyone to wander onto the set and pick up a prop? And did I mention that all the actors – British, American, Russian, Chinese – are speaking their own languages and have been cheaply dubbed according to the country of release?

According to Google, Chan and Schwarzenegger have a combined net worth of around $800 million. The fascinating question of what compelled these two to appear in a movie like this remains the film’s only take home. Their appearances are not so far from Orson Welles’ sad, late-career turn in notoriously bad blockbuster The Island of Doctor Moreau. The difference is that that movie is oddly watchable – and Welles was at least trying. “These strange visions still haunt me and it seems they shall haunt me for as long as I live,” says one character, partway through The Iron Mask. It’s the one line that actually resonates.

The Iron Mask is now streaming on VOD platforms.

Where to watch

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