Writers: RZA, Eli Roth
Stars: RZA, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu
Release date: November 2nd, 2012
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Running time: 96 minutes
Best part: The hyper-kinetic visuals.
Worst part: The incomprehensible plot.
Since starting out in popular rap group The Wu-Tang Clan, RZA (pronounced ‘The Riza’) has steadily switched from rap music to film. Through a love of martial arts cinema, RZA has now starred in, co-written and directed a highly derivative and underwhelming homage to his favourite genre. The Man with the Iron Fists could however be a cult classic, seen as a silly yet occasionally awe-inspiring entry in the undying Wuxia (Kung-fu) cinema movement.
The plot of RZA’s first feature is somehow both convoluted and overly simplistic. The story is told from the perspective of RZA’s blacksmith character. Set in ancient feudal China, the blacksmith’s home of Jungle Village is a scene of multiple murders, fights, crimes and gangs. Both him and his girlfriend Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) plan to leave the village due to its increasing amount of violence. Their plans are short lived however when his services are required by multiple factions. After hearing word of a gold shipment moving through the district, The Lion clan’s leader, The Gold Lion, is betrayed and killed by his own brothers. With his son Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) vowing revenge, and the town welcoming enigmatic emissary Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), the village’s brothel will soon play host to sex, violence and betrayal by dangerous gangs and deadly assassins.
RZA has created an eclectic yet simplified example of East, West and South Central influences awkwardly interweaving. Continuing the current trend of ‘cheap’ exploitation flicks after Rodriguez/Tarantino’s Grindhouse, The Man with the Iron Fists is an underwhelming genre film. RZA clearly has a profound love of Kung-fu cinema, and shows it off in every seductive shot. Questioning RZA’s intentions with this film is difficult as his favourite films also suffered from directorial and technical issues. Whereas Rodriguez, Tarantino and Eli Roth (credited as co-writer here) succeed in re-interpreting their beloved childhood influences, RZA doesn’t have the same technical and artistic qualities. His film is a strange mix of some of Asia’s greatest cinematic creations. The Shaw brother’s films (specifically The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) and Bruce Lee’s Kung-fu flicks (Enter the Dragon) are the basis for the film’s blood and colour-stained aesthetic. The story is a collection of derivative and overused elements. It rushes by at a quick pace, depicting a convoluted execution of a simple narrative. Those expecting the fun yet violent thrills of the Kill Bill‘s will be disappointed by this depiction of old school Kung-fu cinema. RZA has previously scored several films and starred in small roles, giving him an understanding of the film production process. His film contains many similarities to Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. Unlike that film, The Man with the Iron Fists never creates an energetic or intriguing story of good vs. evil vs. the rest. Montage and narration boil the story down to a shallow clash of warriors fighting over one valuable element. When the story slows down however, the contemplative sequences quickly become tedious.
“Power belongs to no one, until it is seized through sex or violence.” (Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu), The Man with the Iron Fists).
RZA uses this simple story to display a love of formalist storytelling from his favourite era. His frantic use of slo-mo, quick cuts, screen wipes and brutally affective gore deliver a series of energetic action sequences but never create a satisfying whole. Similarly to Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, the absurdities of the film’s fantastical elements are easy to forgive. The stylish art direction, colourful landscapes and intricate action choreography illustrate RZA’s ingenuity. The rap/hip hop score also effectively achieves a sense of fun for every punch, wire-fu stunt and stab. However poor shot framing, hit and miss special effects and shaky panning techniques easily distract from what should be significant moments of tension. The film also suffers from underused characters, leaving major plot points without significant emotional impact. The characters themselves are depicted as earnest and silly simultaneously. Tonally off balance from one scene to the next, comedic moments fall painfully flat and RZA’s blacksmith becomes the least interesting character. His character is submissive and underused throughout the film’s first half, while the supporting clans and characters bring life to an otherwise dull and forgettable action flick. The brothel becomes a breeding ground for scummy, overly extravagant and entertaining characters. Russell Crowe (becoming friends with RZA on the set of American Gangster) chews up the scenery in his hammy and unapologetic turn. Sporting a British accent, bloated physique and commanding presence, he is able to convincingly deliver several appallingly silly lines.
Obviously, RZA has an overwhelming infatuation with Asian cinema. In all fairness, It’s great seeing people honour that which has inspired them for years. However, his lack of experience shines throughout this sketchy production.