The opening two minutes of The Man With The Iron Fists features an intense martial arts battle that culminates in one man flip-kicking another, and then literally tearing his opponent’s arms off.
Are you still here?
If you are, I’m assuming that means you’re intrigued, but you’re in the middle of something and can’t make it to the theaters quite yet. So I suppose we can talk about the movie a little more. The Man With The Iron Fists is the quirky, bloody passion project of RZA, nee Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, the wildly talented leader of the infamous Wu-Tang Clan. RZA co-wrote the script with Eli Roth, both directed and starred in it, and wrote the music to it. It pretty much features his stamp on every blood-soaked frame. This is, for the most part, a good thing. Although the story itself feels emotionally empty at parts, it moves at such a brisk pace that one can (mostly) forgive its occasionally lazy writing in favor of the sheer joyous mayhem of the project.
The film is an homage to the martial arts flicks of old, films that RZA and his fellow Wu members have been lifelong fans of. It’s a ridiculous, off-the-wall splatterfest featuring plenty of wire work, absurd weapons, flying punches and kicks, and a hint of the supernatural to tie it all together. RZA plays a nameless blacksmith in a tiny little hamlet called Jungle Village, forced to make elaborate, wicked-looking weapons for the warring factions that vie for control. When the leader of the Lion Clan is murdered, it sets off an all-out war between the new leader of the clan, Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and his hulking, invincible henchman Brass Body (Dave Bautista of MMA and WWE fame), the local brothel mistress, Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), the son of the slain Lion Clan leader, Zen-Yi aka The X-Blade (Rick Yune), and a mysterious Brit named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe). Caught in the middle is the poor Blacksmith, who only wants to save enough money so he can run away with the hooker with the golden heart, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung).
There’s a bit more to the story, in that there are other players who wade into the fray, but that’s the gist of it. The Man With The Iron Fists is 75 minutes of bloody carnage and whip-clever one-liners, interspersed with 20 minutes of flashbacks and plot. That’s about all you really want out of it, and I must admit — shallow as it may be, it’s a hellacious amount of fun. The action choreography is impressively orchestrated, albeit at times over-edited. The editing is a bit spastic at times, and there’s a touch too much slow-motion for my tastes, yet it’s still pretty indicative of the genre that they’re trying to emulate. What makes it ultimately satisfying is a wickedly grim cheekiness and an absolute dedication to being as beautifully, chaotically bloody as possible.
That bloodiness is symptomatic of the film’s spectacular color palette in general. It’s a gorgeous film, resplendent with lavish costume design (particularly Liu’s Pink Blossom Brothel employees), and a meticulous, lovely attention to detail. Similarly, the sets are quite stunning, even when they’re a little artificial at times. The entire film is shot on location in China, and the stunning local scenery contributes to give the film an often magical, ethereal air to some of its locales.
But what makes it the most fun are the performances. RZA is, unfortunately, a rookie among pros here. He gives it his all, but his performance is unescapably wooden and emotionless, and not, I fear, deliberately so. Instead, he has the sort of flat line delivery that comes when non-actors are rushed into acting. The feel is not unlike that of Gina Carano in Haywire, a performance that is undercut by the excellence of the others around him. Liu is basically replaying her O-Ren Ishii role from Kill Bill, though with a bit more coy sassiness. Byron Mann’s Silver Lion is perhaps the most gloriously over-the-top, hilariously menacing villain you’ve seen in a while. With magnificently moussed hair, he’s a wickedly clever psychopath with a delightful 80’s flair and a penchant for wholesale butchery. Rick Yune (Ninja Assassin, Snow Falling On Cedars) is suitably noble as the betrayed Zen-Yi, but it’s ultimately Russell Crowe who wins the day, cast-wise. Crowe’s Jack is an absolute joy to behold, a lethal, laconic Lothario with an insatiable sexual appetite (he basically plows through Madam Blossom’s entire roster) matched only by his clever repartee and shockingly brutal fighting style. Crowe appears to be having the time of his life, elegantly twirling his mustache while cuddling young ladies and gutting his opponents without blinking.
For a first-time film maker, RZA has assembled a surprisingly enjoyable, if emotionally insubstantial picture. It’s helped by the fact that he has some serious talent backing him, both in front of and behind the camera. Taking notes while observing on the set of Kill Bill, sharing writing duties with Roth, and working with renowned composer Howar Drossin on the soundtrack (which is absolutely killer, by the way), he’s certainly got enough support. Yes, the film isn’t particularly deep, nor is his performance very memorable. But he’s crafted a lovely, clever, breathlessly paced and spectacularly violent film that, if you’re a fan of the genre, is a loving and worthy homage to its inspirations.