Back in 1992, the idea of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan squaring off in a fantasy action epic would have seemed just about the biggest thing in both hemispheres. In 2020, with both brands having been steadily devalued through ill-considered on- and offscreen choices, it's just another thing they might do, for a fee, between insurance ads, extramarital affairs and providing glowing endorsements for authoritarian regimes. Which brings them and us to the staggeringly incoherent Russian-Chinese co-production The Iron Mask, which opens with fully five minutes of despair-inducing backstory about a mythical kingdom where once dragons' eyelashes were used to make tea, narrated by an audibly uninterested Charles Dance, who evidently clocked this venture for the well-paying bollocks it is and resolved to be done with it early doors. Our notional director Oleg Stepchenko muffs Arnie's big introduction by having him front and centre in the very first shot, clad in ridiculous pantomime highwayman's costume, then sets down what I hesitate to call his aesthetic: weightless, airless, soulless green-screen action on warehouse-scaled sets, attended by roughly a quarter of China and Russia's population, whose meaningless expository chatter has been overdubbed with near-unimprovable shoddiness. (On its home turf(s), the film was released in 3D, for that extra dash of spivviness.)
The kingdom it goes on to describe is one of those postmodern blockbuster bric-a-bracs, clumsily smashing together elements of Eastern and Western folklore (country houses, Genghis Khan's helmet, CG dragons); Schwarzenegger is the brawny oppressor in a tricorn hat, Chan the nimble prisoner who busts out with a local co-star whose minimal familiarity isn't exactly boosted by having to wear the titular accessory for 45 minutes. The faint hope these names continue to hold out is that there will be action, but the 3D-ness ensures it's mostly pixels being flicked out at the camera like soggy towels, and they share such negligible screen time it's soon apparent they've been opportunistically plugged into a far less stellar production, involving Jason Flemyng as a mapmaker wandering around a Silk Road plagued by princesses, scaly fire-breathers and rousing hymns to the motherland, to boost international sales. As so often recently, Chan looks to have had all the fight knocked out of him; and while I've retained some affection for the weathered Arnie of The Last Stand, Maggie and Aftermath, I don't believe I've ever seen him this underdirected and thus plain bad, popping his eyes out and making a terrible meal of even the simpler dialogue. Let's be optimistic, and wonder aloud whether it made greater sense - and appeared rather more impressive - in its original versions. What's limping out this Friday, however, is yet more VOD junk trading on the former glories of wheezing stars, with the intention of lowering our collective resistance to expensively tedious non-spectacle such as this. After weeks on lockdown, you have reason to yearn for the big-screen experience, and you may even be tempted to cast an eye over The Iron Mask for Cats-style shits and giggles. Trust me, you will regret that impulse within minutes. Next to this, a midranking Arnie vehicle like 1997's Eraser is as The Terminator itself, and Collateral Damage seems as fun as True Lies; next to this, Chan's Dragon Blade begins to look like Project A, The Spy Next Door like Rumble in the Bronx. Mercy.
The Iron Mask will be available to stream from Friday.