This year has been very good to fans of kung-fu cinema. Thanks to The Raid and Tai Chi Zero, we've already gotten more than our share of quality cinema about one-dimensional characters beating each other up. And here's another one, coming to us from the unlikeliest place. Though he's picked up a couple dozen acting credits in miscellaneous films (Coffee and Cigarettes, The Box, American Gangster, Funny People, "Californication"... seriously, guy's all over the map), RZA is still primarily known as the de facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan. Though he might be an ideal choice to work on a soundtrack (and he's worked on a ton of those), his resume doesn't seem particularly well-suited for writing, directing, and starring in an old-fashioned chop-sockey flick. So, when RZA came up with his idea for a crazy martial arts feature, he secured assistance from Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth, both noted fanatics of genre cinema.
I've seen plenty of photos that show RZA collaborating with Roth and Tarantino behind the scenes, so it's clear that the senior filmmakers played a huge part in shepherding this feature. Too bad neither one of them directed it.
The Man with the Iron Fists takes place in the turbulent Chinese town of Jungle Village. The town is basically a "No Man's Land," where several violent clans are perpetually locked in conflict. However, the Lion Clan is the only one that's really important as far as the story's concerned. See, the Lion Clan's leader (Gold Lion, played by Kuan Tai Chen) is killed in combat by his own lieutenants. He's been replaced by Silver Lion (Byron Mann), with Bronze Lion as his second-in-command (Cung Le). However, Gold Lion had a son (Zen Yi, played by Rick Yune), who's eager for revenge.
Meanwhile, a Chinese governor has loaded up an enormous shipment of gold to be taken north, but it has to go through Jungle Valley to get there. The gold's security was entrusted to Gold Lion, but he's of course out of the picture now. So, despite the additional security placed around the gold, every clan in the village is after it. Coincidentally, this is around the time when a mysterious Englishman (Russell Crowe, playing a character known only as "Jack Knife") appears in the village. He claims to be on vacation, but that gets put into question the moment Jack whips out his awesome clockwork gunblade (not a euphemism).
Anyway, our protagonist is a man known primarily as the Blacksmith (RZA). He's a freed slave who found his way to the village under very unusual circumstances. Once there, he fell in love with a woman (Lady Silk, played by Jamie Cheung), who just happens to work at the local brothel. The Pink Blossom is widely known as the best whorehouse in the entire district, and it's famously run by the beautifully dangerous Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu).
So the Blacksmith puts himself to work in Jungle Village, which naturally means making a ton of weapons for all the various warrior clans. He abhors the work, but he'll do whatever it takes to buy Lady Silk's freedom from the brothel so they can run away together.
Right off the bat, the film's biggest problem should be obvious.
Something that I've come to appreciate in schlocky action movies is simplicity. The Raid, for example, was about a bunch of cops trying to fight their way up a 30-story apartment complex full of criminals. Tai Chi Zero was about saving a village of kung fu experts from a giant machine. For an older example, Enter the Dragon was about a government agent going undercover to stop a criminal operation on a desert island. All of these scenarios are easily explained and instantly understood, with clear implications as to who the good guys and bad guys are.
Compare that with the plot synopsis I typed out above.
This movie has far too much going on for its own good. There are too many factions and too many agendas going around, with too many convoluted dealings and feuds between them. Setting up and clarifying all of this takes a lot of valuable time which could and should be going toward the action instead. In all honesty, there were times when I had to stop and ask why these characters were fighting and who I was supposed to be rooting for. That should never happen in a brainless action film like this one.
Honestly, I consider that symptomatic of RZA's inexperience as a filmmaker. For further evidence, consider the camerawork and the editing. Honest to God, there's one shot in the film that rotates 360 degrees around Russell Crowe -- going around and around multiple times continuously -- for something like thirty seconds. Later on, the climax is presented in a split-screen fashion, with multiple shots taking up the screen at once. A more experienced filmmaker might have taken these gimmicks and presented them in a way that adds to the movie's general style. In RZA's hands, however, these tricks are very distracting and clumsy.
Basically put, the movie suffers for being way too ambitious. Then again, that's a very good problem for a movie to have.
A lot of martial arts films have fantastic elements on some level, but the fantasy element in this movie is completely unrestrained. There are so many strange powers, abilities, and weapons in this film that you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a superhero movie. We've got a prince whose armor has more concealed blades than should be physically possible. We've got the Gemini Killers, a pair of fighters who use their own bodies as weapons. We've got "Brass Body," a giant with impenetrable metal skin (think Colossus from the X-Men). There's even a main villain who takes no shame in chewing all the scenery in sight. Hell, the Blacksmith is given an origin story that might have come straight out of a comic book.
Needless to say, all of these strange and unusual powers make for some dazzling and creative action sequences. The fight scenes are loaded with some brilliant choreography and dazzling effects, though it certainly helps that so many members of this cast are action movie veterans and/or professional fighters. On the other hand, RZA's camerawork and editing are so frenetic that it hinders the fights considerably. Also, again, the film has to spend so much time on its convoluted plot that there aren't nearly enough fight scenes in this movie.
As for the acting, it's hit-and-miss. On the one hand, Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu both look they're having a wonderful time. Similarly, Byron Mann makes for a delightfully campy villain. On the other hand, every word out of Rick Yune's mouth fell totally and laughably flat. There's also Jamie Chung, who's woefully underutilized in this picture. I was disappointed to find that she never really gets a fight scene in this picture, especially since Lady Silk is one of Madame Blossom's platoon of kick-ass prostitutes, and Chung herself has done a few action films in the past.
As for RZA, his performance is perfectly serviceable. Not that he had to play anything more than a stoic and nameless hero stereotype, but it was a role he played well.
If nothing else, I have to give The Man with the Iron Fists an A for effort. I'm truly impressed with how much creativity and ambition went into this project, to say nothing of the solid effects and production design. Unfortunately, the film suffers from a narrative that's far too complex for the shlocky kung-fu film genre it aspires to be part of. This film has all the silliness and fun of a chop-sockey good time, but without any of the simplicity.
Though the film certainly isn't a bad one, it's still a poor substitute for the other kung-fu offerings we've received this year. If you have access to The Raid: Redemption or Tai Chi Zero, I strongly recommend you go with those instead. Otherwise, go ahead and give the film a look if you're curious.