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The Man with the Iron Fists Review

November 4, 2012 | Posted by Jeremy Wilson

Directed by: RZA
Written by: RZA and Eli Roth

Blacksmith: RZA
Zen-Yi, The X-Blade: Rick Yune
Jack Knife: Russell Crowe
Madam Blossom: Lucy Liu
Brass Body: Dave Bautista
Lady Silk: Jaime Chung
Bronze Lion: Cung Le
Silver Lion: Byron Mann
Poison Dagger: Daniel Wu
Chi Chi: Zhu Zhu
Abbott: Chia Hui Liu (as Gordon Liu)

Rated R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use.
Running Time: 96 minutes

Sometimes getting your dream project made isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps that’s the biggest thing I took away after watching RZA’s directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists, a consistently bloody if only sporadically entertaining homage to the kung fu movies – specifically of the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers – for which The Wu Tang Clan’s mythos is generally based. I was also left wondering if we had lowered the bar – even with these sorts of B-grade action movies – to the point where merely imitating or posing awesome and gory elements is enough to satiate audiences nowadays. That doesn’t mean I don’t see a place for films such as The Man with the Iron Fists in today’s cinema; I simply mean to ask why can’t we make these good storytelling vehicles at the same time as they attempt at being bloody, kick-ass good times. If you are going to craft an homage, why not make it something that not only pays respect to what has come before, but has enough flair on its own terms to have it go above and beyond what’s come in the past?

For beware all ye who enter The Man with the Iron Fists looking for an engaging and coherent movie that features a tight story, interesting characters or thematic truths (that won’t make you laugh). You won’t find it here. No, this is a movie tailored directly to fans of the genre, the friends and family of RZA as well as adolescent boys looking for a rollicking good time that is only half-delivered from a tempting trailer. Written with Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), RZA’s film is a strange concoction, a pastiche that never succeesfully pulls off being either homage or camp. It’s filled with neat line work, interesting weapons and some fun performances, but ultimately is hampered by sloppy writing, choppy pacing and editing that can only be described as monumentally horrendous. RZA is a man of many talents; unfortunately acting, writing and directing don’t appear to be among them.

To quickly summarize: RZA stars as The Blacksmith, who narrates this tale of clans fighting over a government shipment of gold headed to who knows where (perhaps The Emperor…or The Governor…or whoever) but must pass through Jungle Village, a town that seemingly has the highest number of warring clans-per-GDP of any area in China. That might be due to the Pink Blossom brothel, led by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu) and featuring all the prettiest whores in China, including The Blacksmith’s girlfriend and finest-of-the-bunch Lady Silk (Jamie Chung). The action starts early when Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le) betray their master Gold Lion and lead their clan of Lions against the other tribes (The Hyena Clan, The Wolf Clan, The Gemini Killers) partly to get the gold, partly to cause mayhem and assert power. Enter 19th century G-Man and paunchy ex-British soldier Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), who has been sent by the Emperor to, I suppose, look over the gold and make sure nothing goes awry. Filling out the main narrative is Zen-Yi, The X-Blade (Rick Yune), the son of Gold Lion who has come to town looking to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the silver and bronze-tinged lions. Former WWE superstar Dave Bautista also stars as Brass Body (his talent is pretty self-explanatory) who is in the service of Silver Lion and who has designs on Lady Silk.

A jarring aspect of this film is that it feels like disparate parts of a larger narrative. It’s obvious that RZA has this world thoroughly mapped out; Roth said as much back in 2010, telling Deadline that RZA had “imagined every tribe, every fighting style, every costume” and attempted to fill out the universe in much the same way George Lucas had filled out the Star Wars universe. “He knows kung fu like I know horror.” The relative talents of Roth as some sort of horror visionary notwithstanding, I readily admit RZA knows more about kung fu than I would ever hope to. However, that doesn’t mean that knowledge easily translates into making a good movie. While his kung fu bona fides might be unquestioned, he is still a novice at turning that expertise into high quality filmmaking. Ultimately, that lack of expertise exposes his film.

The action – which is pretty much what you’re going for if you’re seeing The Man with the Iron Fists – is decent, if unspectacular. Most of the choreographed fight sequences are done well and the various weapons and fighting styles actually are pretty neat and compelling in battle. Bautista’s “Brass Body” and X-Blade’s suit of knives are always visually interesting, for example. However, all the hand-to-hand combat is almost uniformly killed by bad editing and sloppy quick cuts, becoming generally monotonous and muddled in the process. None of it remains memorable hours after seeing it and if you can’t nail that down, suddenly your kick-ass kung fu homage doesn’t quite work on the basest level you need it to. I’m also unsure as to why RZA had to shoot much of The Man with the Iron Fists in China; this movie could have been shot on any sound stage in or around Hollywood. RZA makes almost no use of the environment and the only notable setting is the claustrophobic Jungle Village. This setting becomes monotonous, its scale and scope exposed as limited.

Then there’s RZA-the-actor, who unfortunately is terrible in the lead. His performance runs the gamut from sullen to brooding, obviously his take on a sort of quasi-samurai, regardless that this isn’t a samurai movie. Kung fu notwithstanding, you need a strong central hero in this tale of clan warfare, revenge and honor. We have three sort-of, maybe, could-be heroes (it might be a stretch to call Crowe’s Jack Knife a “hero”), and that’s a problem for a pretty clear-cut good guys-vs.-bad guys movie. The Backsmith serves as the film’s emotional gravitas, with a backstory told mostly through a narrated montage taking us and him from suffering racism in the South, to being shipwrecked, being “saved” physically and spiritually by Zen Buddhist monks, all the way to magically forging for himself a new pair of iron fists. The problem, is that you never buy it and RZA’s very serious attempt to show The Blacksmith’s – and by extension his own – spirtual awakening is frankly laughable. The Man with the Iron Fists enjoys its fantastical kung fu superheroes and supervillains, its neat weapons and gory, blood-spouting violence (no doubt pushed for by Eli Roth) and its hammy intra-clan warfare too much. If RZA was trying to make a personal statement about his own supposed spiritual journey, it instead drowns in the blood of all those disposed clansman, cleaved limbs and naughty hookers.

Everything RZA basically knows about trying to make movies comes from a set visit to Kill Bill and having Eli Roth acting as the tutor looking over the student’s work. With production lagging, scenes reportedly started getting done in one take to compensate for time. About 6 weeks into filming, RZA began pushing the cast and crew to work faster; eventually his assistant director told him that his pushing was resulting in stunt workers receiving injuries and being sent to the hospital on a daily basis. Roth began stepping in and directing shots for RZA. Most damning – and obvious – was the film’s original length. RZA’s first cut of the film clocked in at 4 hours and his desire was to split it and release two films back-to-back. Universal and Roth had other ideas and eventually had RZA’s 2-film, 4-hour epic cut down to 96 minutes. At one point during the editing process, RZA admitted walking away, disgusted at having to cut his vision down so much. I have no idea what RZA’s original vision would have looked like on the screen, but I can understand his frustration. Whether it was simply because he wasn’t getting his way or because he could clearly see what I saw, I don’t know, but the editing issues, pacing problems and story holes are there, screaming out and keeping his dream project from being nearly as good as it should be.

The film has no strong central hero, while it remains unclear who its chief villain should be (is it Silver Lion? Brass Body? The mysterious cloaked figure? None of the above?). Relationships are teased, but either remain underdeveloped or get suddenly cut off. Characters pop up out of nowhere and then disappear just as fast as they appeared. Story threads either have strong, clear beginnings that trail off without proper (or interesting) resolution, or ambiguous/mysterious beginnings that have out-of-nowhere revelations. RZA might have mapped this all out, but all that mythology, preparation and world-building didn’t make it into the movie. What we have here is an hour and a half of footage out of four and as result, the whole thing feels strangely incomplete.

However, all those sins and missteps could have been – at least partially – excused to a certain degree, if The Man with the Iron Fists was consistently rousing and a wild, messy, entertaining affair. Unfortunately, RZA’s movie doesn’t even cut it in that department. Not everything is terrible; Russell Crowe is having the time of his life, both in this movie and at the buffet. Okay, fat jokes might be a low blow, but Crowe’s – paunchiness, for lack of a better term – is striking and shows an actor doing things and allowing himself to be seen in a light audiences are generally unaccustomed to seeing. Crowe, Lucy Liu and Byron Mann all ham it up and it gives the movie a quality I wish it had more of. I have no idea how RZA got Russell Crowe to do this, but sort of like Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages, I’m glad he did. It’s an entertaining, fun performance from a major movie star in an otherwise mediocre movie.

But perhaps the greatest sin and most damning thing I could say about it is that – through about an hour and ten minutes, I was bored. That is almost a monumental failure on the part of RZA and company, especially considering what kind of movie this is, what it has going for it and trailers that made it look insanely entertaining – be it of the good or so-bad-it’s-good variety. And once again, we come back to the issue of RZA not only starring, but writing and directing. The pacing is strangely sluggish and the editing just never lets audiences get engaged enough to have as much fun as they want to have. Some will likely be disappointed that the wall-to-wall action teased in the film’s marketing is not exactly what we get. Yes, there’s lots of action, but I found myself wanting even more, building to an insane climax. We got the action-packed climax, but it feels like a bit of a slog to get there, which is not something you want from a movie such as this. Also, featuring really cool weapons and decently choreographed fights is all good and well, but those are supporting elements that fill out what should be a good movie. Those things don’t mean as much or hold as much value if they are in the service of a bad or mediocre movie. Stories and characters are what is important, and I don’t just mean neat gimmicks and pretty animated physical characteristics.

In the end, it all comes off as third-rate Tarantino (which makes sense if Eli Roth is “second-rate Tarantino”). Instead of reinventing the genre (which was their stated goal), or even delivering a hugely enjoyable and thoroughly ass-kicking martial arts epic, RZA and company have instead produced an inconsistent, mildly enjoyable but bad and messy movie. RZA’s dream for The Man with the Iron Fists was to direct his kung fu dream project and reinvent the genre. He got halfway there, but unfortunately you can’t always make all your dreams come true.

The 411: RZA's kung fu dream project is a mixed bag that is more disappointing than it should be. The weapons are cool, many of the fight sequences are well choreographed and a number of the performances are good fun (Russell Crowe in particular). However, sloppy writing, strange pacing and truly horrendous editing undercuts it all, especially the action. Also, RZA might be a great music producer, but a great actor he is not. Until it's action-packed climax, it's frankly on the boring side and it quickly becomes obvious that there is a lot more footage that was shot that isn't on the screen. It's not offensively bad, but it is disappointing, especially considering what we've seen in the marketing for the film. Not Recommended.
 
Final Score:  4.5   [ Poor ]  legend

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Jeremy Wilson

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