The Man with the Iron Fists is the passion project of RZA (pronounced “Rizza”), who has always been very open about his love of the martial arts movie genre. In fact, hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan (which RZA founded) owes their very persona to the martial arts flicks created by the likes of the Shaw Brothers (Five Deadly Venoms) and Gordon Liu (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin). Man with the Iron Fists is not just RZA’s directorial debut, then – it is a love-letter to a celebrated branch of cinema.
Today’s martial arts films are a bigger box office draw than they were in the ’70s and ’80s eras of the Shaws, or Liu – so RZA is an untested director working in a very demanding genre. Is passion alone enough to set Man with the Iron Fists on the same level as the films it seeks to pay homage to?
RZA’s knowledge of martial arts cinema and his funky hip-hop swagger are imprinted all over the DNA of the film, which results in a very mixed bag. While Man with the Iron Fists has its strong points (the action), it’s ultimately an experiment that suffers more setbacks than breakthroughs.
The story takes place in “Jungle Village,” a savage town in rural China where warring clans of warriors all seek to rule the land. Caught in the middle of the chaos is the Blacksmith (RZA), whose skill at crafting weapons makes him the paid lackey of every clan wishing to eliminate their rivals. However, the Blacksmith has a different agenda: use the money from selling his deadly wares to escape Jungle Village with his love, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute in Madam Blossom’s (Lucy Liu) bordello.
Meanwhile, chaos is erupting all over Jungle Village. The governor has a shipment of gold passing through – gold that every clan wants for themselves. When the noble Gold Lion (Kuan Tai Chen) is betrayed and assassinated by his second-in-command, Silver Lion (Byron Mann), the fallen leader’s son, Zen Yi “The X-Blade” (Rick Yune), comes seeking revenge. This vendetta quickly erupts into all-out war, bringing other killers – like the insatiable Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) and impenetrable Brass Body (David Bautista) – into the ring. From there, it’s a showdown to the last man (or woman) standing, as destinies are discovered and blood is spilt all over the streets of Jungle Village.
As stated, Man with the Iron Fists is very much a RZA product – for better and for worse. The musician/filmmaker’s knowledge of the genre comes in handy: his script (co-written with Hostel director Eli Roth) is full of colorful characters and ideas, while his direction of the martial arts sequences draws upon the canon of films that made the genre so popular, offering some admirable action excitement. However, those same characters are far more interesting in concept than actual characterization – and narratively speaking, the “story” of the film is as poorly developed as its players are.
The movie takes itself way too seriously for what it is (a silly action flick) and attempts several “twists,” all of which fall utterly flat, as the “revelations” tend to confuse more than surprise. Instead of character development or foreshadowing, we’re given heavy-handed exposition drops and awkward flashback sequences that feel totally at odds with the other portions of the film (see: The Blacksmith’s slavery-drama backstory). This problem extends to other areas, and Man with the Iron Fists feels, in total, like a mismatched pastiche work. The hip-hop soundtrack often rips you right out of the film, as it’s completely incongruent with the imagery and atmosphere (I say this as a personal fan of many of the featured musicians). The dialogue is similarly problematic, oscillating between overly-dramatic martial arts platitudes and crude modern slang terminology. In short: the movie can’t decide exactly what it wants to be, and that confusion is perennially apparent as you watch it.
RZA must have called in a lot of favors to gather the cast that he did. The musician has never been the best actor, and wisely keeps his screen time to a minimum for the first two-thirds of the film (which is ultimately strange to see since he is the titular character). Keeping us occupied in his stead are a portly Russell Crowe, who chews the scenery down to the gristle; Lucy Liu, who is almost a carbon-copy of her Yakuza leader character from Kill Bill; Byron Mann, who tries to inject some actual theatricality into his villain performance, while Bautista, Rick Yune and martial arts star Cung Le (Tekken) are basically there to showcase their physicality.
The film also offers plenty of Easter egg cameos that only the most hardcore movie fans will recognize: International stars like Daniel Wu, Brian Yang, Grace Huang, Zhu Zhu and Andrew Lin show up in various roles. Some aging martial arts movie stars are also thrown in the mix: Kuan Tai Chen, star of the Shaw Brothers classic, Five Deadly Venoms, cameos as Gold Lion; Jon T. Benn riffs on his “Boss” role in Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon by playing a plantation owner known as “Master”; and 36 Chambers star Gordon Liu appears as the wise old “Abbott” (an alias RZA adopted for his hip-hop career). ’70s blaxploitation star Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) shows up for a split-second during the strange slavery-drama flashback sequence – though she’s all but unrecognizable.
The action in Man with the Iron Fists – which is really the big selling point of the film – is just okay. Some of the fight choreography and ‘wire-fu’ acrobatics are wonderful and exciting, but too much of the film relies on tightly-framed quick-cut editing techniques and CGI blood spurts. There are hints of classic martial arts flicks peppered throughout the action sequences, but much of it looks like the work of an amateur director getting a great deal of help from more experienced personnel. By the time RZA straps on those eponymous iron fists to get in on the action, said action has devolved into almost ridiculous spectacle. The man has love for films, but still has a long road to travel before he becomes a quality filmmaker in his own right. The potential is there, though.
Man with the Iron Fists is only for those who love their martial arts flicks no matter how cheesy or silly – or those who love the (sometimes discordant) mix of Asian and hip-hop culture. As it stands, the film is destined to become a cult-classic seen ’round the bootleg or cable TV movie circuits. Theater tickets, however, are a bit too steep a price to pay.
The Man with the Iron Fists is now in theaters. It is Rated R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use.