THE MYSTERY OF DRAGON SEAL (aka VIY 2, aka JOURNEY TO CHINA: THE MYSTERY OF IRON MASK) (2019) review

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Who could have imagined that two of the most iconic movie stars in the world, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, would one day share the screen not in a Hollywood buddy movie, but in a Russian-Chinese fantasy swashbuckling adventure vaguely derived from Nikolai Gogol, in which Arnie would play a British warden, and the two would have a swordfight? Now we want to see Sylvester Stallone and Chow Yun Fat arm-wrestle in a Polish-Vietnamese western indirectly adapted from Victor Hugo. Anyway, Oleg Stepchenko’s The Mystery of Dragon Seal is the sequel to Viy, a Russian fantasy adventure – Gogol-derived, as aforementioned – starring Jason Flemyng and Charles Dance, that found healthy international ancillary success after becoming the third highest-grossing Russian film in Russia in 2014. Conceived to work as a stand-alone film – thanks to a recapitulation of the previous episode – and geared towards the China market, this sequel has been a flop both there and in Russia.

Returning from Viy, Jason Flemyng plays cartographer Jonathan Green, who undertakes a journey from England to China to map out the Far East, helped by a Lan (Yao Xingtong), Chinese princess masquerading as a man, and whose father (Jackie Chan) is a prisoner in the Tower of London, ruled with an iron fist by Warden James Hook (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Green’s peregrinations lead him to a village of tea makers that has been enslaved by an evil witch (Ma Li) who needs the Dragon Seal, a magical artifact that would make a legendary dragon obey her every order. There he meets tsar Peter the Great, as well as his own wife (Anna Churina) who’s been searching for him. The cartographer and his wife, the Chinese princess, the tsar and his cossacks all join forces to bring down the witch.

The Mystery of Dragon Seal is obviously modeled on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: same merging of fantasy with swashbuckling tropes, same structure of parallel adventures all joining in one place for a grand finale, same multi-cultural cast with a fakely British anchoring. Of course, despite – or maybe because of, as they don’t work for scale – the starry presence of Jackie & Arnie, there’s only a fraction of the budget of these Jerry Bruckheimer productions here, which is readily apparent in unpolished CGI, sometimes crude green-screen work and, well, Jackie & Arnie’s relatively limited presence. In fact, confined to the Tower of London scenes peppered throughout the film, they’re as if in a film of their own. That film is fairly entertaining: the Tower of London set is an elaborate one, and there’s of course a special thrill in seeing these two legends go head to head. Arnie in particular gives an irresistibly salty comedic performance. Their fight scene is an oddity, however: Jackie Chan Stunt Team luminary He Jun, choreographing the action, hasn’t really found a convincing way to pit Jackie’s nimble precision against Arnie’s lumbering power.

The rest of the film suffers from the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean-derivativeness and budget constraints, with startlingly inspired production design (like the intimidating mechanical golems employed by the witch) and occasionally brilliant action (four avatars of Yao Xingtong fighting one another) drowned in bland, heavy-handed comic relief (dwarf jokes!) and abstruse fantasy stakes: using a magical seal to bring life back to a dragon whose eyelashes go into the ground then out of it as tea leaves, isn’t exactly a gripping endgame. The excellent Jason Flemyng seems puzzled to be there, the estimable Ma Li but cameos briefly, the late, great Rutger Hauer but cameos even more briefly, while Yao Xingtong makes this her very convincing audition tape for Disney’s live-action Mulan. Too bad it’s too late.

Long Story Short: Come for Jackie and Arnie, stay for Jackie and Arnie. The rest has some inspired production design and action, but is derivative, abstruse and occasionally cheap. **

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1 Comment

  1. Simon

     /  November 2, 2019

    I watched the film a few weeks back and i was slightly surprised with it, dont get me wrong it’s not a good film but it was minorly fun. I guess after seeing JC in abysmal The Knight of Shadows Between Yin and Yang anything is good.

    The fights were decent and possess some nice wushu balletic flair. But I do agree with your Arnie and JC fight it was OK for what it was but they didnt know how to fully utilise both combatants.

    What language was your version cos oddly enough I watched the entirety in Mandarin.

    Reply

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