In the 18th century, English traveller and cartographer Jonathan Green journeys from Russia to China encountering dragons, black magic wizardry and a dragon king during an incredible but deadly adventure.
Imagine a slapstick comedy with Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger hamming it up as prisoner and gaoler in Regency London, combined with a children’s adventure mystery as map-maker Jonathan Greene travels to China, where he gets involved with a princess, a witch and a dragon.
Yes welcome to Carry On Up The Cartographer, with giant bloomer gags though sadly without Sid James or Hattie Jaques to liven things up.
This is one of those films I really wanted to love, and the trailer tempted me with so much – admittedly a lot of it crazy batshit-ery, but there’s a place for that when it’s done with relish, consistency and the obligatory flirty wink.
Released in the UK as The Iron Mask, it’s also known as Journey to China: The Mystery of Iron Mask, and indeed The Mystery of the Dragon’s Seal. That’s two mysteries already before we add a third, which is what’s going on in it. So let’s get into what actually happens, though any plot pointers in this review should be taken with a pinch of salt because the more I try to remember the more I forget.
This is actually a sequel to “dark fantasy” Forbidden Kingdom, also known as Viy 3D and Forbidden Empire, a Russian/Chinese co-production and a big box office hit in Russia when it was released in 2014.
That film – also directed by Oleg Stepchenko – starred Jason Flemyng as cartographer Jonathan Green, who travelled through Russia and Eastern Europe encountering various monsters along the way.
I haven’t seen it, though it doesn’t sound particularly cheery. The Iron Mask – which sees Flemyng returning as Green, this time travelling to China – sounds tonally very different, as he becomes embroiled in an adventure involving a princess, Cheng Lan (an impressive Yao Xingtong), who disguises herself as a boy in order to overthrow an evil witch who has stolen her place and her identity as a guardian of a dragon. The local villagers are kept down by what they believe to be magic, while any riches are taken from them ostensibly for the dragon.
I was hoping The Iron Mask would be an enjoyably historically inaccurate romp, something good-looking, daft and a bit trashy, not unlike me in my mid-90s heyday. Movie-makers: with films like that, I’m prepared to overlook a lot. I’m not bothered about time-appropriate levels of dirt and grime. Feel free to mix up your methods of execution and even types of military hat and I might still give you four stars.
Unfortunately the plot is all over the place and it’s not helped by some truly awful dubbing which is so distracting it’s really hard to focus on the good. Overall this plays out like the kind of dodgy panto where only the occasional appearance of Christopher Biggins in bloomers and Bonnie Langford slapping her thigh enlivens proceedings.
It’s not a total write-off. If a trailer is the tempting icing on a cake, then as long as some of the original ingredients are good enough then there will be pockets of lip-smacking unctuousness – in this case Arnie and Jackie and some glorious China-set scenes and costumes – but overall this is more stale iced finger than naughty, cream-laden gateau.
But now let’s leave behind baking similes and metaphors, and get to the main event – tea!
Yes, at last something I can get behind, as good and bad wizards fight over a dragon whose eyelashes, legend has it, planted into the ground and still provide the tea leaves on which a Chinese village’s fortune depends.
With Jonathan en route to China accompanied by Cheng Lan (his carriage trundling through some very pretty snow-covered forests), Green’s fiancée Miss Dudley (Anna Churina), is – this being the 19th century – in slow pursuit.
She’s accompanied by (thank goodness!) an actual man in an iron mask, otherwise known as Tsar Peter I of Russia (Yuriy Kolokolnikov). I think so anyway, as the plot is often unnecessarily bogged down, until everyone gets to China where the clouds lift and even if the story still doesn’t really make sense there’s a feeling of clarity to proceedings.
It also gets a lot more interesting, as walking iron men wield electric currents and appear to be able to control matter. I liked the Chinese villagers’ song of doom, and an aerial assault by red umbrella. The final fight involving a flying dragon is an absolute highlight, and left me wondering what might have been with tighter control of the narrative and a more even tone.
If you’ve seen the trailer and the poster, you might very well be expecting a lot of that Arnie / Chan double act: Arnie as cheery red-jacketed prison governor James Hook, freeing prisoners who can fight their way past him, and Chan as his grey-haired prisoner the Master, who has been banished from China by the evil wizards.
When those two superstars appear they are great fun together, though they’re not in it much. Those prison scenes are also weirdly paced, with Schwarzenegger trying to add impetus while around him everything takes an age. An escape from the prison takes forever, and left me thinking “hurry up, this is dragging in a bit” quickly followed by “but then we get no more Arnold Schwarzennegger / Jackie Chan”, so be careful what you wish for kids.
Watch the Iron Mask trailer now:
The Iron Mask is released on digital in the UK on 10 April.