I’ll say this about rapper-cum-auteur filmmaker RZA: He’s got a hell of a lot more drive than his Wu-Tang compatriots (and pretty much every other Gangsta Rapper Gone Hollywood, for that matter). While RZA’s affection for the kung-fu/exploitation cinema of the ’70s has been well-established, this particular labor of love proves more of a quickly regretted, drunken one-night stand than something deserving a long-term commitment. Co-written and produced by Eli Roth (and “presented” by Quentin Tarantino), The Man with the Iron Fists actually begins with a title sequence impressively aping grindhouse hallmarks, amidst a killer original soundtrack by (surprise!) RZA himself. Alas, this represents the only stylistically and tonally consistent few minutes of the film, which is a shame, too—it’s been years since western audiences were treated to a good wire-fu-based empty calorie indulgence.
At least the negligible plot hits the mark: RZA narrates and stars as the eponymous Man, a blacksmith (possibly the only blacksmith) in the nebulously Cantonese, anachronistic 19th century village of … wait for it … Jungle Village. This is probably not metaphorical. Forced to forge weapons for all of the local warring clans in order to buy his wife’s freedom from her Madame (Lucy Liu), his life grows more complicated when he nurses Zen-Yi (Rick Yune), the son of the murdered Lion Clan leader, back to health. This annoys Silver Lion (Bryann Mann), the trusted lieutenant who called the hit of Zen Yi’s father. Now that the Blacksmith is a walking poison blowdart target, he’s forced to join with Zen Yi and hedonistic English killer Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) in an effort to bring down Silver Lion and his invincible hired goon, Brass Body (ex-WWE and MMA champ David Bautista). They don’t have any time to waste because the bad guys stole the Emperor’s gold, and that puts the Emperor’s legionnaires in a “wipe out the village” state of mind.
Within the barebones scaffolding of its story, there are ample opportunities for delivering many massive martial arts smack-downs. All are wasted. This is not due to a want of big kung fu brawls, but rather a want of memorable ones. Considering it’s established this is also a world that accepts the magical, it’s additionally disappointing there’s nothing here that won’t feel entirely rote. Thanks to stilted editing (including at least one hilariously bad bit of wire work), the action is neither fluid nor visceral, exciting nor amusing. (The iMovie-caliber CGI blood geysers certainly don’t help.)
So what’s left to do the heavy lifting, to make the film entertaining? Alas, not the impressive international cast, which barely shows up. For reasons unknown, only Russell Crowe—and especially Bryan Mann—seem to be having any fun in their roles. Perhaps they were the only actors who figured out this wasn’t the sprawling, four-hour epic revenge saga RZA originally planned. Mann adeptly maneuvers his way through the silly—and often nonsensical—dialog, savoring the cartoonish evil of his role. Given that this is ultimately the journey of the Blacksmith, it’s unfortunate that RZA’s default mode of emoting can best be described as “sleepy.”
There’s no question that RZA is a monster talent, and his devotion to this project is well documented. The undertaking of an endeavor like this without prior feature film directing experience—as well as convincing a studio and many established talents to back him—is nothing short of extraordinary. But, in the end, The Man with the Iron Fists will have to settle for having crossed the finish line at all. Good hustle. Good hustle.
Writers: RZA, Eli Roth
Starring: RZA, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Cung Le, Bryan Mann, Rick Yune, David Baustista
Release Date: Nov. 2, 2012