In case you don’t know, the RZA is a legendary hip-hop producer, an actor, a movie score composer and soundtrack contributor and a published author, and now he has added writer/director to his lengthy résumé, as “The Man With the Iron Fists” makes his feature-film debut. With the assistance of his filmmaking buddies Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth, he was able to get his project made the way he wanted, for better and for worse, and what we have here is a loving homage to the kung fu films the RZA grew up watching.
Much like the Shaw Brothers style of films in the 1970s, which were cranked out at an unbelievable rate, and of greatly varying quality, “The Man With the Iron Fists” has a bit of an overstuffed plot with lots of twists and turns and betrayals but little character development or story depth. The RZA eschews the character development for Shaolin philosophy, and gives a healthy dose of fight scenes and action to move the story along at a nice clip.
The RZA plays Thadeus, the local blacksmith of a place called Jungle Village, where he makes lots of money making weapons for the violent gang members who live there, and he then gives all his money to Lady Silk (Jamie Chung, Sucker Punch, The Hangover Part II, Premium Rush), a working girl at a local brothel, with the plan that they would accumulate enough cash to pay for Silk’s freedom from servitude, allowing them to leave Jungle Village together.
But just as they get enough money to do this, things in Jungle Village get way too hot, as a shipment of gold from the government is passing through, just begging to be stolen by any number of the gangs in the village. And to top things off, an act of betrayal in one clan calls for an act of righteous vengeance, and also a strange Englishman who dresses like a cowboy and calls himself Jack Knife (Russell Crowe, Virtuosity, Mystery, Alaska) mysteriously shows up and doesn’t make his intentions clear for quite awhile, placating himself with some fornicating, drinking, and a lil justified homicide. And then there’s the brothel’s manager, Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu, Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever, Codename: The Cleaner), whom they want to pay off, and who has her own plans that take their time to unfold.
There are a bunch of characters, some of them with supernatural abilities, all of them with kung fu prowess, and because of this none of them get enough time to stretch and develop. The closest we get to an emotional core of this movie is the relationship between the Blacksmith and the Prostitute, and then we get some of the Blacksmith’s back story, but that’s pretty much it. There’s some family betrayal among one clan, and they squeeze in the tiniest bit of back story for Jack Knife at the end, but that’s it. But then again, the great kung fu films of the past aren’t known for their complex stories and characters.
Instead, the tropes and conventions that compose these classic films are indeed present here. The existence of the different clans, identified by different animals and their fighting styles, is a kung fu film standard, so are the different ways characters are dramatically introduced throughout the film (like bursting out of the ground). And though they don’t go crazy with the defiance of gravity and physics, there is still the element of heightened, dream like reality during the fights when people glide off of stairwells and walls and make big jumps and leaps across rooms.
However, the action scenes themselves are not as good as they could have been. Specifically, they are all filmed in a lot of close up shots, and a lot of the editing is quite hyperactive, and this is kind of surprising because one would think that old school kung fu fan the RZA would have had the cameras pulled back and would have left the camera movements much less frenetic, instead letting the actual action on screen speak for itself. But still, it’s not terrible, and there is enough variance to the action scenes that makes them a lot of fun. The digital blood and gore, however, is deployed to different effects. Sometimes it looks good and splattery and sometimes it looks really fake and digital. It’s like they tried to blend old school action with modern action and they don’t really pull it off all the way.
But the RZA did manage to get some kung fu philosophy in there, including the idea of racial color blindness and togetherness, but while the Blacksmith and his studies at the Shaolin temple are the way they get most of this philosophy in there, it feels like they could have gone the extra mile and worked that philosophy more into the story and the characters choices. Still, it’s nice to see the RZA get some of that stuff in there because it is definitely an interest of his and that kind of thoughtfulness is not something seen in many mainstream movies.
From the opening credits to the closing credits, “The Man With the Iron Fists” is a love letter to the movies the creator loves and cherishes. Like “Hobo With a Shotgun” and “Black Dynamite,” the more acquainted the viewer is with the movies they homage, the more enjoyment one gets out of the film. And as the RZA’s first film, it’s definitely a good sign of his abilities on a film set, and it will be interesting to see where he goes as a filmmaker after this movie.
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