Jackie Chan squares off against Arnold Schwarzenneger, for about seven minutes, in the Russian-Chinese megaflop The Mystery of the Dragon Seal (awkwardly titled Journey to China: The Mystery of Iron Mask on IMDb), writer-director Oleg Stepchenko’s sequel to his 2014 feature Forbidden Empire, the highest-grossing Russian film of that year.
Forbidden Empire starred English actor Jason Flemyng as Jonathan Green, an 18th-century cartographer whose work mapping Europe brings him to Transylvania and mythical creatures from the Romanian countryside.
Flemyng returns in The Mystery of the Dragon Seal as Green, but the cartographer’s story is entirely overtaken by a slew of new supporting characters and a storyline so densely plotted it almost defies description.
Of prime note here: the presence of action stars Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who take on largely extraneous supporting roles but square off against each other in a legitimate fight scene that ought to genuinely please fans looking for that sort of thing. It’s about twenty years overdo and played largely for laughs, but it’s a real crowd-pleasing five minutes and the one thing most viewers will remember from The Mystery of the Dragon Seal.
Chan is The Master, protector of the titular Dragon Seal, which endless opening narration drones on about – a rural Chinese tea-making village, clans of White and Dark wizards, and a dragon shackled in a cave.
But currently, for reasons unexplained, Chan’s master is imprisoned in the Tower of London under the watchful eye of Schwarzenegger’s (Captain?) James Hook. His cellmate just happens to be the Man in the Iron Mask, here purported to be deposed Russian Tsar Peter the Great (Yuri Kolokolnikov), who has been replaced by an impostor back in Moscow.
And wouldn’t you know it, a carrier pigeon sent by Flemyng’s cartographer Green to love interest Miss Dudley (Anna Churina) finds its way to the cell window of the Tsar, and he and The Master soon discover that Green is travelling to China alongside Chen Lao (Xingtong Yao), who just happens to be The Master’s daughter and princess out to reclaim the dragon throne.
When a riot breaks out and Tsar Peter escapes, The Master entrusts him with the Dragon Seal and tasks him to give it to his daughter, setting up a whirlwind adventure and leaving Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Tower of London for the rest of the movie.
The subsequent narrative flies just as fast and freely as the setup, and manages to distract the audience enough not to question the huge contrivances propping the story up at every turn. But Mystery of the Dragon Seal delivers its goofy, overstuffed story with an old-fashioned adventure movie charm, and never turns dull even if it never becomes actively good.
Even minus the two headlining stars, a climactic battle scene is nicely staged and choreographed atop some impressive Chinese sets as a Cossack army and Chinese villagers take on hulking man-in-suit monsters with magic powers.
One big fault in The Mystery of the Dragon Seal: third-rate CGI effects, including a tiny flying monster from the previous film, which are clearly deficient and cheapen the rest of the production’s grandiose, even spectacular set and costume design.
Chan and Schwarzenegger aren’t the only foreign stars on display here; in even briefer cameos, Rutger Hauer (in one of his final film roles) shows up as an Ambassador in Russia, while Charles Dance reprises his role from the earlier film as Lord Dudley.
While Forbidden Empire was one of Russia’s biggest hits in 2014, The Mystery of the Dragon Seal, stuffed with bigger international stars and a cast and storyline that attempts to break into lucrative Chinese market, was a huge flop when it opened in Russia and China earlier this year, grossing $5 million on a $50 million budget. That’s a shame: this goofball epic is fine for children and undemanding audiences, and some memorable moments between Chan and Schwarzenegger are icing on the cake.