Over the years as RZA has eagerly developed his directorial debut and showcase as a leading man, the kung fu spectacle The Man with the Iron Fists, his enthusiasm has been readily apparent. Obviously the Wu-Tang clan founder and baddest producer in hip-hop is a devoted fan of the high-wire films of the past, and he taps into that deep-seated love in every bloody frame. Exciting, occasionally exhilerating, and more than a little tiring, the film overcomes its many flaws through passion and sheer gusto.
As a filmmaker, RZA’s skills are raw but unrefined, nailing the grindhouse aesthetic and gorgeous ancient Chinese look. He shows a deep love for the old school wuxia style of martial arts flicks, and revels in their campiness and razor thin vengeance storylines. RZA pulls from a number of familiar sources to mold the film’s bizarre and furious world, from Five Deadly Venoms to the Shaw Brothers’ Shaolin Temple. The blood flows freely, limbs get torn off and throats ripped out with reckless abandon. Fans of the genre will love every gorgeous, authentic and brutal second of the action.
What the film desperately needs is a healthy dose of restraint, and RZA is still too inexperienced to recognize when to pull back a little bit. He throws everything he’s been holding on to for years into the storyline, spinning it into a ridiculous array of flashy but undefined warriors and clans and factions, so that it’s hard to keep up with anyone outside of the main cast. Even more so, as lovely hyperactive as the kung fu action is, it’s also edited to death and occasionally gets lost in a flurry of quick cuts and distracting close-ups that take away from much of the artistry.
While RZA still has a lot to learn as an actor, he makes for a perfectly stoic hero as Thaddeus the blacksmith, who forges weapons of war in crime-ridden Jungle Village, but feels really bad about the destruction they cause. He keeps at it only for the sake of his lover, Lady Silk(Jamie Chung), a prostitute at Madame Blossom’s(Lucy Liu) house of pleasure. They hope to use the money to leave town one day and live their lives together in peace.
But Jungle Village is anything if not a chaotic snake pit of villainy, and there are more than a few making life miserable for everybody. The fierce Lion Clan, each with a thick mane of hair that would make Simba jealous, are on the hunt for a vast stash of gold. There’s always a stash of gold in these sorts of flicks. Byron Mann steals the show as the snappy and boisterous Silver Lion, equipped with some nasty moves and the film’s most ridiculous lines. He’s the sort of villainous caricature that works perfectly in this sort of film, and I only wish we saw more of him. Martial artist Cung Le gets little to do but be an attack dog as the Bronze Lion, while ex-WWE star Dave Bautista will likely get a lot of attention for his menacing turn as the Brass Body. With a roguish charm that hides his scarier side, it isn’t long before we see why he earned such a monicker in the first place.
The good guys aren’t quite as interesting, in particular Rick Yune as the stock hero X-Blade. Despite having the most reason for vengeance we learn very little about him, and he’s basically only there to look handsome and cool. More interesting is the presence of Russell Crowe as Jack Knife, an opium-addicted soldier that RZA says was inspired by his late cousin, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Crowe does occasionally seem to be channeling the “unique” rapper, bursting into drunken and garbled speeches usually precluded by someone getting ripped up by his specialized blade. It was always weird that Crowe was even a part of the film, but he seems to be having the most fun of all, content to be the big fish splashing around in a much smaller pond. Lucy Liu is expectedly solid as Madame Blossom, and arguably has the best fight sequence of them all.
There are a lot more characters who pop in and make their presence felt in a hail of violence, and RZA, along with co-writer Eli Roth, struggle to make them all distinct. Once you get past the idea that there was ever meant to be a rational story here, and just take it in for the martial arts spectacle it is, it becomes much more enjoyable. RZA has got the soul and the attitude of those earlier films down perfectly, but needs a bit more time in the director’s dojo to fully realize it on screen.