- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Bob Westal
thoughtful fellow critic – a more forgiving soul than I when it comes to genre films – told me that he thought the directorial debut of hip-hop maestro and hardcore Asian action fan RZA (real name Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) was exactly the movie he wanted to make. If that's true, the leader of the Wu Tang Clan clearly doesn't look for the same things I do in a movie and I wonder if he respects his audience at all. His film's tagline, "You can't spell kung fu without F and U," kind of says it all.
Now, I understand that many of you will probably just get irritated if I whine that "The Man with the Iron Fists" is an impossible to follow hash saddled with an endless and utterly useless narration delivered listlessly by RZA. You won't care if I say it's shoddy, stupid, unpleasant, and bitterly sadistic – you'll likely say "Yeah, but how's the action?"
Well, I don't know how the action is because RZA isn't confident enough to let me see it. I know that Hong Kong action veteran Corey Yuen ("So Close," "The Transporter") was onboard choreographing the mayhem, but since our first-time co-writer/director refuses to hold a shot for any length of time, it's kind of impossible to see whatever artistry is or isn’t there. RZA does allow us to briefly wallow in some impressively gruesome and stylized make-up effects delivered by Greg Nicotero of "The Walking Dead" fame, though I doubt there's enough of it to please gorehounds.
It's all pretty disappointing. "The Man with the Iron Fists" boasts a pedigree that puts it directly in line with "Kill Bill." It's "presented" by Quentin Tarantino, and RZA worked out the music for Tarantino's delirious action masterwork. Since RZA is still a newcomer to the cinema game, I never expected his movie to come anywhere near the giddy brilliance of "Bill," but I was hoping for a decent, reasonably imaginative film in somewhat the same tradition. Sadly, about the only thing RZA's take on kung fu flicks shares with Tarantino's is elaborate old-style Hollywood/Hong Kong sets, anachronistic music, and a cameo by Hong Kong action legend Gordon "Pei Mei" Lu. Another QT-beloved grindhouse great, Pam Grier, stops by for a blink-and-you'll-miss-her flashback cameo as RZA's devoted mother. Her part was probably much larger in the original cut, which was reportedly about the same 4-hour length as both volumes of "Kill Bill."
By this point in the review, I'd usually get around to some kind of plot description but, very honestly, at least at its current 98 minute length, I have no freaking idea what this movie is about. Let's try anyway: RZA portrays the Blacksmith. A former African-American slave in 19th century China, he is an extremely talented weapons maker who is somehow involved in a vendetta against a group of bad guys who style themselves as the Lion Clan (Cung Le and Byron Mann). The Blacksmith is very literally disarmed by his enemies but, unfortunately for the bad guys, he is able to fashion replacement fists made of you-know-what. RZA's partners in vague good-guyness are handsome but hollow Rick Yune and pretty but vacuous Jamie Chung. On the plus side, however, our hero eventually aligns himself with a sybaritic English badass who calls himself Jack Knife (Russell Crowe). Knife is, in turn, on the same side as a powerful Madame (Lucy Liu) who turns out to be more than a bit dangerous herself. It all somehow resolves itself in a battle between the iron-fisted Blacksmith and MMA star David Bautista as an even more metallic supervillain.
The story, credited solely to RZA, may be a mystery, but the screenplay and the dialogue, discredited to RZA and producer Eli Roth, is a disgrace. This is a movie which tries to pass off a non-variation on Mark Twain's "the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated" as a laugh line just because Russell Crowe is saying it. At least Crowe's "I always bring a gun to a knife fight" line actually bothers to alter the cliché it borrows.
To RZA's credit, the professional actors in "The Man with the Iron Fists" do get to shine a bit. Slumming superstar Crowe allows us to have some fun watching him play his downright pervy kinda-sorta good guy. Lucy Liu delivers a tolerable variation on her O-Ren Ishii as the not-to-be-messed-with madame. I'm also not sure whether Byron Mann of "Street Fighter" fame (as the most evil of the Lion clan members) is very good or very bad, but he's definitely interesting to watch.
Which is much, much more than I can possibly say for "The Man with the Iron Fists" as a whole. Despite its attempts at mashing up spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation style with kung fu/wu xia insanity, it's a movie that's more concerned with striking poses than telling a story or delivering even one exciting action sequence. If you're in the mood for an action fest endorsed by Quentin Tarantino, I'd suggest a DVD of 1993's "Iron Monkey," or really any Hong Kong classic. Your time and money will be vastly better spent.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
With the exception of some deleted scenes that give you a better idea of what RZA was originally striving for, the Blu-ray includes a trio of brief production featurettes and a DVD and UltraViolet digital copy. This is the kind of movie that would have benefited greatly from the addition of an audio commentary by its writer/director.