Review: ‘Iron Mask,’ starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Flemyng and Jackie Chan

January 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan in “Iron Mask” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Iron Mask”

Directed by Oleg Stepchenko

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, Russia and China, the action-adventure film “Iron Mask” has a cast of white people and Asians representing the working-class, royalty and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An adventurer teams up with a princess disguised as a teenage boy to rescue the princess’ imprisoned father and save a magical dragon that has been taken over by an evil witch and her group of wizards.

Culture Audience: “Iron Mask” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching nonsensical and poorly acted action flicks.

Jason Flemyng, Anna Churina and Xingtong Yao in “Iron Mask” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Iron Mask” is one of those movies that’s so horrendous, it’s like an insulting parody of a bad movie. “Iron Mask” (sloppily directed by Oleg Stepchenko, who wrote the insipid screenplay with Alexey A. Petrukhin) looks like it has a budget that was spent mostly on the production design (some of the set designs are fairly elaborate); the often-tacky visual effects; and the salaries of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan, who get top billing. However, these two past-their-prime action stars are each in “Iron Mask” for less than 20 minutes of this two-hour muddled mess of a film. That skimpy screen time should be enough of an indication how much of a shameless ripoff “Iron Mask” is to mislead viewers into thinking that Schwarzenegger and Chan are the central characters in the movie. They’re not.

In reality, “Iron Mask” is a bloated slog of terrible acting and time-wasting scenes where there are pointless fights that all lead to a predictable and very cheesy ending. It’s the kind of dreck that, if people have the patience to watch the whole thing without falling asleep, they’ll forget almost everything about the movie not long after watching it. It’s not only mind-numbingly bad, but it’s also very boring.

You know how movies look where people speak in another language but their voices are overdubbed with another language? “Iron Mask” (whose convoluted story takes place mostly in England, Russia and China) is that type of movie. It has an international cast, and there are scenes where it’s obvious that people spoke another language when filming the movie but then it was overdubbed in English for release in English-speaking countries. The weird thing is that the audio doesn’t quite synch up well throughout the entire movie, so it looks like even the actors who speak English have overdubbing. That’s how carelessly the film was made.

“Iron Mask” was previously titled “The Mystery of the Dragon Seal,” which is a more appealing title, but it still doesn’t change how badly this movie was made. Here’s the gist of the plot, as it’s explained in the beginning of the film with voiceover narration that’s supposed to sound mystical: In a land far, far away, there lived a creature called the Great Dragon, whose eyelashes went deep into the ground and came up as plants that were made into tea. (Try not to laugh at the ludicrousness of this concept.) The land where the dragon lives is supposed to be an alternate fantasy version of China.

Humans called white wizards were entrusted with the tea. The dragon has a special white seal, which the dragon gave to two white wizards whom the dragon trusted the most: a man named Master (played by Chan) and his princess daughter named Cheng Lan (played by Xingtong Yao). But since movies like this need villains, it’s explained that some of the wizards got greedy, went to the dark side, and called themselves black wizards. These black wizards aligned with an evil witch (played by Li Ma), who led them in an army that took control of the dragon so they could steal all the tea and sell it for their own financial gain.

The witch and the black wizards stopped trimming the dragon’s eyelashes, so the dragon’s eyes became too heavy, and the dragon fell into a deep sleep. The white wizards fought to free the dragon, but they were defeated by the black wizards. As a result, Master and his daughter Cheng Lan were imprisoned on opposite sides of the world.

Master ends up in the Tower Grey Prison in England, while Cheng Lan ends up in a prison in Russia. Schwarzenegger’s role in the film is a little out-of-place and bizarre. He plays James Hook (as in pirate Captain James Hook, albeit with Schwarzenegger’s heavy German accent), who acts as a prison warden for the Tower Grey Prison, but he’s decked out the whole time in a red and white pirate suit. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

Meanwhile, the story’s main character is a Brit named Jonathan Green (played by Jason Flemyng), who is shown being chased off the estate of a nobleman called Lord Dudley (played by Charles Dance), who is very upset with Jonathan. Why? Because Lord Dudley doesn’t want Jonathan to be with his daughter Miss Dudley (played by Anna Churina), a somewhat prissy heiress who’s in love with Jonathan.

The movie doesn’t make it clear if Miss Dudley and Jonathan are married or not. The “miss” title in her name implies that she’s not married, but then later in the movie, she refers to Jonathan as her “husband.” Whatever their marital status, Jonathan and Miss Dudley have a son together, who’s about 4 or 5 years old, so Lord Dudley can’t get rid of Jonathan that easily.

After being banished from the Dudley estate, Jonathan travels to Russia, where he saw an ancient creature with countless eyes called Viy, which has the ability to read minds. There are also Russians called Cossacks who can turn into creatures. It’s just an excuse to pile on some visual effects that don’t do much to improve this poorly written story.

Jonathan ends up in a Russian prison, and there’s a silly plot development involving a messenger pigeon that leads to Jonathan taking it upon himself to rescuing Master and Cheng Lan; saving the Great Dragon; defeating the villains led by the witch; and going back to England to reunite with Miss Dudley and their son so they can all live happily ever after. Jonathan is released from the prison by Peter the Great, also known as Iron Mask (played by Yuri Kolokolnikov), who’s kind of a useless and annoying character, even though the movie’s title was named for him. Rutger Hauer (who died in 2019) has a much smaller and forgettable role as an ambassador character.

As you can imagine, this loopy saga involves a lot of globetrotting, and there are huge portions of the film that take place on a pirate ship (cue the swashbuckling) and on battle fields. And presumably to appeal to kids, the movie has a creature that looks like a cute blue stuffed toy monkey with wings. This CGI-created creature tags along with Jonathan when he goes to rescue Cheng Lan while they travel by carriage and are confronted by a gang of thieves.

For her protection, Cheng Lan has disguised herself as a teenage boy. It’s not a convincing disguise, but she manages to fool Jonathan for most of the story anyway. Miss Dudley hears that Jonathan has gone to rescue a beautiful princess, and she gets jealous. So there’s a dumb subplot of Miss Dudley flouncing off to Russia to try to track down her man.

Miss Dudley ends up disguising herself briefly as a male pirate to get on board a ship that’s bound for China. Just like Cheng Lan, Miss Dudley also looks very unconvincing “disguised” as someone of the opposite sex. The movie can’t even get it right when it dresses up women up in drag. Whatever this fantasy world is in “Iron Mask,” it’s clear that it’s a world where the “good” women aren’t taken seriously as men are taken seriously, when it comes to being strong leaders and fighters, so the women have to disguise themselves as men to get things done. However, the movie has no problem making the chief villain a woman who doesn’t disguise herself as a man.

There’s also some underlying sexism when James Hook comments on an elderly man who died in the Tower Grey Prison: “At least he died happy,” and adds an explanation for why this man died happy: “As far as I know, he hasn’t seen a woman in 30 years.”

James Hook and Master have an inevitable fight scene where there’s more crappy dialogue that’s fails miserably at being funny. While the two adversaries are fighting with swords, James Hook’s hair gets cut off, while Master’s long beard gets shortened. Master tells Hook, “You look better this way.” Hook comments to Master on his new look: “You look younger.” Master replies, “Do I?” And then they resume fighting.

Cheesy jokes aside, “Iron Mask” looks like a movie made by people who wanted to waste millions in production money to make a live-action version of a very badly conceived cartoon. The characters are bland and unappealing. And the actors seem to know it too, because there’s no real enthusiasm or sincerity in their performances. And the amateurish direction gives the impression that a robot could’ve done a better job directing this movie. There are bad movies that are sometimes fun to watch, but “Iron Mask” is just a cringeworthy chore to watch.

Lionsgate released “Iron Mask” on digital and VOD on November 20, 2020, and on Blu-ray and DVD on November 24, 2020.

Review: ‘The Sonata,’ starring Freya Tingley

January 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Freya Tingley in "The Sonata"
Freya Tingley in “The Sonata” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“The Sonata”

Directed by Andrew Desmond

Culture Representation: Taking place in England and France, “The Sonata” is a horror flick that centers mostly on people in the European world of classical music, a culture that is almost exclusively Caucasian.

Culture Clash: A supernatural ghost story, “The Sonata” uses the age-old conflict of good versus evil, with a minor subtext about resentments that working-class people can have for people in the upper class.

Culture Audience: “The Sonata” will primarily appeal to people who have the time to watch a B-movie that covers a lot of the same tropes that many other horror movies have already covered.

Freya Tingley in “The Sonata” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

When it comes to horror movies about evil spirits, “The Sonata” follows the formula so closely that horror fans can easily predict what’s going to happen. Directed by Andrew Desmond, who co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur Morin, “The Sonata” checks the boxes of many familiar clichés used by movies of this ilk. Attractive young lead actress? Check. Spooky old house? Check. Nightmarish sightings of dead people? Check. The first two acts of the movie are far superior to the third and final act, which devolves into a disappointing dud. But if you must sit through this movie, here’s what to expect, without revealing any spoilers.

Rose Fisher (played by Freya Tingley), a British woman in her late 20s, is a talented and intensely focused professional solo violinist whose life revolves around her work. From the first scene, we find out that she’s an emotionally distant loner with no family ties. When her agent/manager Charles Vernais (played by Simon Abkarian) interrupts her rehearsal to inform her that her father has died, her response is: “I don’t have time for this right now.”

It turns out there’s a reason for Rose’s cold reaction to the news of her father’s death: He abandoned her and her mother (who is now deceased) when she was just 14 months old. The death of her father also exposes the secret that Rose has been keeping for years: Her father was the famous composer Richard Marlowe (played by Rutger Hauer), who disappeared at the height of his fame and became a recluse in France. Because of his abrupt departure from the spotlight, many people had assumed he had died years earlier.

Rose never really knew her father, and he never kept in touch with her and her mother. Therefore, Rose doesn’t really feel sad that he’s died, and she doesn’t even ask how he passed away. (It’s shown in the beginning of the movie that he set himself on fire.) Before his death, she had also kept her father’s identity a secret from everyone (including Charles) in her line of work because she didn’t want to trade in on his name to advance her career. It should be noted that Dutch actor Hauer, who died in July 2019, has screen time in the movie that’s less than 10 minutes, so it would be a mistake for people to think he has a lead role in this movie.

Richard Marlowe did not leave a will, and Rose is his only heir. She finds out that even though he didn’t have much money, he did leave behind his secluded mansion in France and all of his copyrighted work, so Rose inherits it all. Rose decides to bail out on some work commitments, in order to travel to France to check out the mansion. Charles is naturally upset by her decision, and there’s further tension in the relationship when Rose tells him that a big agency has offered to sign her. Ultimately, she sticks with Charles, who is (as he points out to her) the only person in her life who’s like a family member to her.

Early on in the movie, it’s established that Rose is a loner, so it actually makes sense that she has no qualms about staying in an isolated mansion by herself. Soon after arriving, she meets the housekeeper Thérèse (played by Catherine Schaub-Abkarian), who goes to the mansion once a week to clean and do other domestic duties. Thérèse tells Rose that when her father was alive, he kept to himself and was despised by the townspeople, who suspected that he was behind the disappearance of a local boy, who has remained missing. Thérèse also tells Rose how her father died.

While looking through some items in her father’s study, Rose finds a hand-written sonata in a locked desk drawer. Because her father’s initials are signed at the end of the sonata, she rightfully assumes that he was the one who wrote it. There are also four mysterious symbols on the sheets of paper. It’s easy to figure out that these symbols have something to do with the dark and foreboding atmosphere in and around the mansion. When Rose plays the sonata, she sees a shadowy adult figure, which just as quickly disappears. Thus begins her sightings of ghostly figures (some more menacing than others) in her nightmares as well as in her waking hours. It’s clear that playing the sonata has unleashed something evil.

Meanwhile, Rose tells Charles about the secret sonata, which was her father’s last work, and sends it to him to take a look at it. Charles does some research on the Internet and finds a video of an old TV interview that Marlowe gave about a masterpiece that he was working on at the time. Figuring out that the hidden sonata is the masterpiece in question, Charles goes behind Rose’s back and consults with some industry experts to feel out the market value of the sonata and to ask if they know what the mysterious symbols mean. There’s an ulterior motive to these consultations: Charles (a former classical musician and a recovering alcoholic) is in a precarious financial situation, since Rose (his only client) still might end up leaving him for a big agency, so he’s looking for a way to cash in on the sonata for some financial security.

While Charles consults with the enigmatic Sir Victor Ferdinand (played by James Faulkner), a former colleague of Marlowe’s, Sir Victor tells Charles the true meaning behind the four symbols, which represent power, immortality, appearance and duality. He also reveals that a French secret society created these symbols in the 19th century, and the society had certain beliefs on how to conjure up the devil.

The best parts of “The Sonata” are the production design by Audrius Dumikas, the art direction by Janis Karklins and the cinematography by Janis Eglitis, because they all convincingly evoke the Gothic atmosphere of an old haunted mansion in the French countryside. The film’s musical score by Alexis Maingaud is also effective in eliciting moods in all the right places. Less impressive are the movie’s basic visual effects, which look like something you’d see in a mid-budget TV show. The actors do a competent job with this trite and sometimes problematic script. The melodramatic turn of one of the characters toward the end of the movie is just a little too over-the-top and is almost laughable.

If you’re looking for a horror movie with some mild scares and compelling set designs, then “The Sonata” is worth watching. Just don’t expect to see any scares that are original or an ending that is particularly satisfying.

Screen Media Films released “The Sonata” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on January 10, 2020.