The permeating influence of classic kung-fu cinema upon the legendary Staten Island-based hip hop group The Wu-Tang Clan has been well documented from the members themselves over the years.
The genre’s penchant for crafting such stylish, over-the-top epics as Five Fingers of Death, The Street Fighter and Crippled Masters is represented front and center here on this debut feature from Wu-Tang mastermind RZA. Titled The Man with the Iron Fists, RZA’s directorial direction is clearly influenced by the chop-socky films of his youth, more than likely caught in any of the grimy New York City grindhouses which crowded Times Square in the 1970s.
As such, The Man with the Iron Fists concerns itself primarily with style, showcasing a dazzling array of ultra-violent and gory action sequences, all shot with impeccable visual flair by RZA’s director of photography, Chin Ying Chan. Plot-wise, the film’s storyline revolves around the basic, yet comfortingly quintessential themes of betrayal and revenge, centering on a stolen shipment of government gold by the corrupt lieutenants of the Lion Clan.
RZA himself plays the titular role of a humble blacksmith who winds up in the middle of intrigue, caught between the designs of Zen Yi, The X-Blade-seeking to avenge the murder of his father Gold Lion, betrayed by his chief officers Silver and Bronze- and a mysterious British soldier (Russell Crowe) known only as Jack Knife.
These destinies intertwine here in a simple yet classic screenplay by RZA and Hostel director Eli Roth, hampered only by the occasionally awkward acting of the director and Byron Mann as Silver Lion, whose delivery may or may not be intentionally humorous in nature. Of course, kung-fu cinema fans rarely watch this genre of film for impeccable dialogue, and never do the admittedly uneven acting performances of Iron Fists detract from the film’s superb enjoyment factor.
RZA’s creation features an equally impressive supporting cast, as well, including Blaxploitation legend Pam Grier, Kill Bill actress Lucy Liu and professional wrestler Dave Bautista as the malevolent and merciless assassin Brass Body. Elsewhere, RZA and Roth also saw fit to include legendary kung fu star Gordon Liu in a minor role as an abbott monk, which is just one of the many references fans may recognize from genre cinema’s heyday.
Indeed, The Man with the Iron Fists references many of kung fu’s greatest cinematic achievements, including The Flying Guillotine and The Wu Tang Clan’s beloved 36 Chambers of Shaolin. RZA’s inspired musical score-assisted here by Howard Drossin-combines traditional Asian melodies with hip hop beats, while the soundtrack features collaborations with fellow Clan members Method Man and Ghostface Killa, as well as Kanye West, Corrine Bailey Ray and The Black Keys.
The best aspect of The Man with the Iron Fists, however, is the film’s ability to suspend disbelief and simply indulge in fantasy. With so many genre films centering on faux realism and ‘found footage’, it’s refreshing to see a film like Fists which simply wants to tell a story, while inviting its audience to recapture that innocent age of drive ins and double features.
The result of that invitation is a stunning cinematic love letter to the kung-fu genre, and an impressive, heart-on-sleeve directorial debut from RZA.