Top of my mustn’t see list: The Iron Mask reviewed

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

The Iron Mask

12A, major streaming platforms

As all other publications are offering guides saying what to watch from home during this pandemic — ‘the 50 best movies to stream right now’; ‘20 hidden gems available on Netflix’; ‘movie masterpieces for quarantine’ — an equally valuable service would, surely, be telling you what not to watch, under any circumstances, no matter how desperate. So that’s the service I’m offering you today. And the best film not to watch, under any circumstances, this week? Top of my mustn’t-see list? No, not any of the Marvel films, although they are definitely worth a not-watch — each one is dumber than the last. I’ve opted instead for The Iron Mask.

This newly released comedy-fantasy blockbuster was originally titled Journey To China: Mystery of Iron Mask, and while worse things have come out of China lately, it has to be a close shave. Actually, it’s a Russian-Chinese co-production, directed by Oleg Stepchenko, and written by someone or other — I can’t be bothered to look it up — who should have known better. The narrative begins in China in the 18th century with an expository tale about dragons whose eyelashes fall out into the earth and grow into tea plants. Quite. Then it’s over to ‘London, England’ — this is a geographically helpful film — and, more specifically, the Tower of London in ‘London, England’. Here, there’s a prisoner played by Jackie Chan wearing Mary Beard hair — quite a weird combo — and a jailor played by Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing a tricorn hat. Also a weird combo. Chan and Schwarzenegger receive top billing and are all over the marketing — finally, the showdown you’ve been waiting for! — which is a bit of a swizz, as they’re only in it briefly for the one dull, silly fight, and so Schwarzenegger can shout: ‘Well, that really wasn’t your day!’ This may be the comedy aspect, I think.

Meanwhile, over in ‘Moscow, Russia’, a British cartographer (Jason Flemyng) sets off to map the extremities of the known world as accompanied by a beautiful princess (Xingtong Yao) whom he doesn’t clock as a beautiful princess as she’s dressed up as a boy. (But it’s as clear as day! Open your eyes, man!) You would, of course, fully expect all these strands to come together eventually but one of the reasons this is my mustn’t-see of the week is that the plot is a total mess and follows no known logic whatsoever. It’s the sort of film that, in fact, makes the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise look like a series of elegant, coherent masterworks.

But you don’t know this at the outset, so at first your brain tries to make sense of it. Why does an English aristocrat (Charles Dance) have a Russian daughter? Why is Peter the Great an American? Why are there four pigs pulling a sleigh in the background? How is it that someone can receive a homing-pigeon message from a prisoner locked in a windowless dungeon? Why is the CGI so crap? Why are the actors so overdubbed? How much more of this to go? Why aren’t I dead? Truly, if you’re only going to not see one film this week, then make it this one rather than, for example, Trolls World Tour. Although that isn’t to say Trolls World Tour isn’t also worth not watching, as it very much is. (It’s the sequel to Trolls, which came out in 2016, and which you may want to not watch first.)

Anyway, I’ll certainly keep an eye on what to not watch for as long as we’re in lockdown — you’re welcome — and I’m actually quite excited about all that’s coming up. Cats, for instance, is being released on to streaming platforms next month, although maybe that’s a must-see mustn’t-see? Sorry if that’s confusing but do remember: we are negotiating uncharted territory here. And I am trying my best.

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