This weekend, RZA, a talented member of the Wu-Tang Clan, a rap collective highly indebted to all things martial arts, unleashes his kung fu epic, “The Man With the Iron Fists,” Co-written by “Hostel” auteur Eli “The Bear Jew” Roth and “presented by” Quentin Tarantino, it’s a zany, multicolored fight fest, pitting squadrons of lethal killers against each other, all in pursuit of a weighty chest of imperial gold. It’s pretty impressive that RZA (who had previously scored “Kill Bill, Vol. 1” and “Ghost Dog,” which mine similar territory), on his initial outing, assembled a cast almost as stuffed as that chest of gold — Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Jamie Chung, Rick Yune, Pam Grier and assorted martial artists all make appearances.
The question remains, though: will you actually want to sit down and watch this energetic 96-minute homage, or would you rather sit in your room and listen to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Gravel Pit” on repeat for the same amount of time? Let’s find out, in our “Iron Fists” PRO/CON, below.
PRO: It’s A Whole Lot Of Fun
From the film’s opening title sequence, which features freeze frames, dramatic shifts to black-and-white, Chinese lettering, and a guy getting his arms ripped off (in an aerosol spray of blood), “The Man with the Iron Fists” is a genuine blast. You can tell that everyone involved was having a great time (the movie was made for $20 million; if it wasn’t made for love, what was it made for, exactly?) The movie has a zippy spirit, unafraid to pile on an excessive amount of homespun mythology (about battling “tribes,” and a kind of understated mysticism that allows for mixed martial artist David Bautista to turn into a man made of metal) in an attempt to fully flesh out the fictional “world.” (RZA has said that “Star Wars” was an early inspiration.) Fight sequences break out in surprising places, which is nice considering Hollywood’s tendency to telegraph bursts of violence. And when those fight sequences do arise they are gushy, full-bodied affairs, with fire-hydrants of blood, cracked skulls, and mutilated limbs.
CON: RZA Isn’t Much Of A Director
As clearly in love with the genre as RZA is, RZA can’t really direct. The action sequences, for all their bloody verve, are often impossible to untangle, visually. Spatial geography remains aloof, and even basics like character motivation and a clear delineation of who belongs to what tribe, are annoyingly out-of-reach. Fight sequences are shot too close up, and edited too choppily, which is disorienting more than it is engaging. All of these problems you can assume would come along with being a first-time director, but RZA has an encyclopedic knowledge of these movies, and you’d think that, along with all of the winking nods to the history of the genre, he would actually be able to shoot a fight sequence like those old school classics (long lens, RZA! Long lens!). It is frustrating on multiple levels and kind of makes me want to kick a guy through the wall of a brothel. All that said, RZA’s script with Roth is actually pretty great, both simplistic and unnecessarily convoluted, like all the best kung-fu epics.
CON: RZA Isn’t Much Of An Actor, Either
RZA also, in his infinite wisdom, cast himself as The Blacksmith, a humble worker in the town of Jungle City. At one point he is badly mutilated and assumes the role of the title character, fashioning a pair of magical iron arms for himself, so he can get his revenge. Why he would give himself such a pivotal role remains a mystery (besides the obvious answer of “ego”); RZA has had a decent amount of roles in other movies but has never shown himself to be an actor capable of much depth or range, building the entire movie around himself was a dicey gamble, and one that doesn’t exactly pay off. His performance is mostly robotic (and this is before he gets the iron arms) and the performer seems stripped of much of the charisma that made him such a magnetic music personality. Instead, he just walks around with his hooded cape up and mumbles. What a movie star!
PRO: Russell Crowe
It’s been a while since Russell Crowe has come across like a fully-formed bad-ass (the less said about “Robin Hood,” the better), but in “The Man with the Iron Fists,” he fully recaptures his mojo. As a character named Mr. Knife (“You can call me Jack,” he announces to a room full of prostitutes and scallywags), he carries a mechanized blade that slices a sumo wrestler in half and talks in a drawl equal parts pre-Invisible Obama Clint Eastwood and Oliver Reed after a serious bender. Crowe shot his entire part in 10 days, and while his performance doesn’t seem rushed or phoned in, there are large swaths of the movie where he simply isn’t around (and that does hurt a number of things, including pacing). When he is on screen, the entire movie becomes considerably more electric, especially in sequences where Crowe is, er, indulging himself in the local brothel. In one scene he’s seen removing a string of antique anal beads from a young lass and inserting them into another girl. In another he produces some kind of shiny phallic device and proclaims, “We’re going to play a game called ‘Let’s pretend we’re Catholic.’” In a movie that, for all its fantastical violence, is oddly chaste, these moments are wonderfully perverse.
PRO: The Music
RZA, working with commercial composer Howard Drossin, composed the score for “The Man with the Iron Fists,” and true to form it’s admirable and old-school. But the real fun of the movie is in its soundtrack, which might be the coolest collection of tracks since “Top Gun,” and features the reunited Wu-Tang Clan, along with The Black Keys, Kanye West, and Pusha T. What’s strange, though, is how seldom RZA actually lets these songs take center stage, instead choosing to emphasize the chop-socky sound effects (which can sometimes be distracting). We were promised a kung-fu movie with Wu-Tang Clan songs on top. That promise should have been more fully realized. And much, much louder.