Imprisoned (for reasons that remain unclear) in the Tower of London, a Chinese kung fu Master (Jackie Chan) and his mysterious cellmate in an iron mask (Yuri Kolokolnikov) must contend with indomitable but honourable warden James Hook (Arnold Schwarzenegger). By improbable coincidence in through their window drifts a letter penned by British cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng). It recounts how, having narrowly survived his adventure with ghosts and demons in Russia, Jonathan returned home. Only to be newly expelled upon discovering Tsar of Russia and guest at the British court: Peter the Great has gone missing. Somehow Jonathan then finds himself travelling to China with a companion disguised as a boy but whom the Master correctly pegs as his student Princess Cheng Lan (Yao Xingtong), rightful heir to a throne usurped by an evil Witch (Li Ma) who has imprisoned their sacred dragon. Realizing they need help the Master helps his masked cellmate, none other than the real Peter the Great, escape with a mystical amulet Cheng needs to take down the witch.
Although not sold as such to international audiences this Russian-Chinese co-production is the sequel to Forbidden Empire (2015) a.k.a. Viy, Oleg Stepchenko's CGI-amped retelling of the classic Russian ghost story penned by Nikolai Gogol. That film was an incomprehensible mess. By comparison The Iron Mask, while no less bloated and convoluted, is a little more fun. Stepchenko attempts to fashion a jolly, effects-laden steampunk-cum-supernatural romp akin to Disney's similarly-bloated Pirates of the Caribbean films, interwoven with sort of a Russian-skewed riff on Alexandre Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask and Chinese wu xia fantasy tropes, but his ambitions are hobbled by some admittedly slapdash storytelling. With a plot split three-ways between three sets of characters (later Russian star Anna Churina joins the fray as Green's wife who joins Peter the Great, disguised as a sailor, to search for her man), large chunks of screen-time leave viewers wondering whose story is this meant to be?
Flemyng's Jonathan Green is neither compelling nor charismatic enough to drive the story nor really stand out amidst the parade of colourful computer animated critters and high-flying wire fu. Similarly Game of Thrones veteran Kolokolnikov's quixotic and confounding Peter the Great talks big but, despite being arguably the title character, does little of consequence throughout the story. Only once the plot takes an explicit turn into wu xia territory, following Princess Chen's efforts to free her people from the witch and her three elemental-themed mech suited warriors, does The Iron Mask belatedly come into its own, giving free reign to some kooky ideas and fun set-pieces. The film does not become any easier to follow but at least invests this latter portion with engaging characters and emotional stakes. Less studio bound than Forbidden Empire, its spectacular locations lend the comic book action a certain epic sweep with a lively climax that brings together ninjas, pirates, robots and an impressive dragon.
For obvious commercial reasons international marketing spotlights Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, here reunited on screen after Around the World in Eighty Days (2004). The ageing action stars share a silly slapstick tussle, unlikely to sate die-hard Eighties action fans, but an endearing example of Jackie's enduring wit and inventiveness as fight choreographer. Even though the script’s absurd efforts to convince us lumbering septuagenarian Schwarzenegger (who cuts a clownish figure bellowing absurd dialogue about his fitness regime through a walrus moustache) is the "toughest opponent" the still-sprightly Jackie has ever fought smack of efforts to appease Arnie's ego. Nevertheless as silly fantasy romps go, Iron Mask is a step up from Forbidden Empire and, taken as a one-dimensional B-picture, kind of endearing.