Nobody who is as interested as I am in a movie like THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS wants to have anything remotely negative to say about it. I couldn’t wait to see it, I rushed out to see it, and I’d love to have loved it. I did not love it, not unreservedly at least, but I do have plenty to say about it. And I do mean plenty. Go get a snack while the trailer plays and come back to read the rest!
Okay: In my eyes, The RZA, as mastermind of the Staten Island hip-hop dynasty Wu-Tang Clan, deserves as much credit as his buddy (and producer) Quentin Tarantino does for having led the way towards the widespread availability of cult films today. Both careers have, since the early 1990s, wrenched the spotlight onto obscure and bizarrely wonderful cinematic oddities that might have otherwise been forgotten. Quentin did it through his movies; RZA did it through his music. The first time I ever even heard of SHOGUN ASSASSIN was on the RZA-produced Liquid Swords album. At that time, the best you could get of that movie was a pirated video tape or an import DVD. Today, you can easily pick up SHOGUN ASSASSIN at any Best Buy, along with the majority of the LONE WOLF & CUB films from whence it originated.
What the 1970s generation that included Carpenter, Scorsese, and Spielberg did for the auteurs of yesteryear such as Hawks, Ford, and Hitchcock, that’s what The RZA did for filmmakers like Gordon Liu, Robert Clouse, Sonny Chiba, and the Shaw Brothers – and what Quentin did for directors like Enzo Castellari, Jack Hill, John Flynn, Brian Trenchard-Smith, and so on. As a guy who not only loves all the same movies but has been turned onto plenty of them this way, I don’t take this service lightly. We are – myself and pretty much anyone visiting this site – all of us in RZA’s debt.
So believe me, I wanted to LOVE the RZA’s new movie, just as much as I’d yearn to love any film that was made by my own personal friends. And I’m not setting up for a smackdown either, because I did have a good time watching THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. Just not as nearly much as I could have.
THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is a period kung-fu would-be epic, set in feudal China and involving a battle over territory and wealth amongst a diverse host of characters. Really, it’s more of a mob scene than a conventional movie – it’s literally flooded with eccentric characters. RZA filled this film with everything that he (and we) might ever want to see in a movie – sometimes this yields the pleasures you’d hope it to, but more often it feels overly busy. Everyone is looking for attention, and everyone gets attention, so no one gets enough attention. Let me introduce most of them so we can sort this out:
ZEN YI, a.k.a. THE X-BLADE (Rick Yune): Rightful heir to leadership of the Lion Clan, this movie’s alpha-squad. He’s trying to live in peace with his lady when he gets word that fellow clan member Silver Lion (more on him in a minute) has usurped control in a mad power grab. Zen Yi takes his knives – and his medieval-Iron-Man super-suit which can shoot knives – and heads off after Silver Lion. Zen Yi is played by Rick Yune, who made an impression in SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS and played the villain in THE FAST & THE FURIOUS and DIE ANOTHER DAY. Rick Yune is an absurdly handsome dude, so you might fairly assume that he might be the star of this film. He is not the star of this film.
JACK KNIFE (Russell Crowe): Another expert with the lethal blade, although he carries his in the form of a pistol – the combination knife-pistol is exactly the kind of murderous invention you want to see in a movie like this, and the character is almost as much fun. He’s a British officer who’s come to China on holiday, which means plenty of whoring with a side-order of killing. Jack Knife is played by Russell Crowe, real-deal movie-star, Oscar-winner for GLADIATOR, giver of one of the best performances of the past twenty years in THE INSIDER, sometime muse to top-tier directors such as Ridley Scott, Ron Howard, and Peter Weir, and probably not the kind of guy you’d expect to see in a movie like this one. It’s a weird year for Russell Crowe. He’s singing with Hugh Jackman in LES MISERABLES and he’s munching box in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. (Whatever I expected out of this movie, none of it was Russell Crowe in a bathtub, chowing down on lady-parts with a mouthful of nether-jewelry.) The movie needs him. Russell Crowe is the most consistently-fun part of THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. The main reason is that, and I would lay big money on this, he’s doing his best impression of Oliver Reed. Jack Knife is stout, paunchy, horny, apparently ripped-to-the-gills drunk through the entire story, yet consistently well-spoken and just as ready to rip his enemies apart. Oliver Reed. I’m telling you.
However, he is not the star of this film.
MADAM BLOSSOM (Lucy Liu): As the dragon lady who runs the brothel where much of the story takes place, Lucy Liu is basically reprising her role from KILL BILL – not that the job description is the same, but her approach is identical: Graceful, imperious, and sophisticated, in contrast to her proximity to shady business and her facility with death-dealing. If you liked her in KILL BILL, you’ll like her here, but all the same, she is not the star of this film.
BLACKSMITH (The RZA): The narrator of the film, the man who makes all the best weapons for all the meanest customers, a seemingly impartial observer to the action, who is played by the film’s co-writer, director, and soundtrack curator. I was not aware, going into THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, that he was also the star of the film. With love and respect, I still must suggest that RZA over-extended himself here. As I mentioned up top, I love the guy, and as I did in movies as great as GHOST DOG and as not-great as DERAILED, I smile whenever I see him on screen. But carrying a movie is a mighty burden, and not many people can do it. RZA is playing the character who has the hottest chick in the movie as his love interest, the only character who gets a lengthy origin sequence, and the central character who is transformed from a sideline player into the franchise superstar, the man referred to in the title. That by definition brings scrutiny to the performance that ultimately causes problems for the movie. RZA has a low-key charm onscreen and a sly humor that is way smarter than he gets credited with, but not the kind of movie-star looks as a Rick Yune or a Lucy Liu, and more importantly, not the kind of movie-dominating charisma as a Russell Crowe. Having RZA in the lead role makes it feel more like a vanity project and less like a movie in its own right. It nudges things closer to the Ed Burns end of the scale than to the Clint Eastwood gold standard.
LADY SILK (Jamie Chung): I’m really putting this entry on the list as an excuse to post a picture of Jamie Chung. She really doesn’t get to do anything of value in the movie, which is a shame because I do look at her and see movie-star potential. That’s not just a question of looks. There are plenty of good-looking people in this movie. When she’s on screen, she’s just where your eye goes. But she’s really only been used so far as eye-candy, in movies as atrocious as GROWN UPS, as misguided as SUCKER PUNCH, and as under-seen as PREMIUM RUSH. THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is no real exception.
SILVER LION (Byron Mann): The film’s main villain and source of much of its darker humor. I’ve seen Byron Mann do evil duties in the Steven Seagal non-classic A DANGEROUS MAN, but here he really stands out among the cast – along with Russell Crowe, he’s the cast member who best gets the appropriate tone, and plays it almost flawlessly. He’s hissable but enjoyably so, and gives some of the movie’s dialogue-heavy scenes the energy they need.
BRASS BODY (Dave Bautista): The film’s other villain, although confusingly, he’s given a hero’s entrance. Brass Body is the guy you’ve seen in the trailer transforming himself into a metal man, like Colossus from the X-Men. I don’t know much about the modern world of pro-wrestling which is where Bautista hails from, but from his role in this movie I’d say this guy has presence more than just the physical intimidation factor. I’ve seen some bad pro-wrestler film performances, and I’ve seen some great ones (Roddy Piper, Tommy Lister, Jesse Ventura, Andre The Giant), and I feel like given more chances, Bautista has the same kind of promise. The problem here is that the role is under-written – I forgot what Brass Body’s motivations were halfway through the movie, if I ever knew them at all. Other than a late-in-the-game evil act he commits against another character I didn’t know all that well anyway, there’s not a great reason to dislike him. Again, good news for the actor, bad news for a villain.
JANE SMITH (Pam Grier): The Blacksmith’s mother, a slave woman in America who helps her son escape the plantation, which sets events in motion which end him up in China. This all happens in flashback, in a sequence which was obviously pared down for the theatrical release. Talk about wasting a great actor! Pam Grier is a legitimate greatest-of-all-time, one of the few actors who can draw me to a movie on her name alone, and in this movie she gets one scene and not any dialogue I can remember. I know enough about the process of making movies to know that there may be a perfectly good reason – scheduling, etc. – but when it comes to a film depriving me of Pam Grier, no perfectly good reason is good enough.
See what I mean? A lot of characters. That didn’t even cover them all. And the movie doesn’t manage to satisfy our interest in the characters which are probably our favorites. When it comes to gang-up movies, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is more EXPENDABLES than AVENGERS, unfortunately. It feels cramped too – the film is mystifyingly shot primarily in close-ups and medium shots, which is a major filmmaking gaffe for a kung-fu film. You want to see the fights! Kung-fu films demand the wide screen. All of the modern-day grindhouse filmmakers, these guys who claim to love Sergio Leone, seem to be in such a hurry to get their movies indoors and to get their characters talking. It’s a major failing. Give me some establishing shots, give me some outdoor battles. Again, I understand if the reason is budgetary issues, but it’s impossible to wholeheartedly recommend a kung-fu flick with such tangible limitations. THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS does manage to open up a little at the end, with final battles that were obviously the most carefully-planned of the shoot, but until that happens, the movie is for a long time like a caged tiger yearning to break free.
I could never have written this much about a film I didn’t care about or one for which I didn’t hope the very best. If I’m giving the indication that THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS was ultimately a disappointment, I hope I’ve given some measured reasons why. There was plenty I liked. It’s just that so often, when something like this goes from an idea to a finished film, the end result can’t defeat the movie in your head.
That’s why it helps that the music is so terrific. The score, by RZA and Howard Drossin, is everything it needs to be, a solid re-creation of all the 1970s films that inspired this movie. And the soundtrack has songs with contributions from hip-hop greats such as RZA, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Method Man, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Kool G Rap, Freddie Gibbs, Pusha T, and Pharaohe Monch. There’s a killer William Bell sample somewhere in there, from one of my favorite classic R&B songs. The Wu-Tang musical ethic is all over this movie. As accompaniment to THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, it augments the action excitingly and helps smooth over the flaws in the story. And when listened to on its own, just like all the best Wu-Tang records, it creates a whole ‘nother movie in your head. I’m not here to warn you away from THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. I’m not. But I am here to tell you that, if you end up missing the movie, you definitely shouldn’t miss its soundtrack.
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