Monday, November 5, 2012

The Man With The Iron Fists

The past several years have seen a resurgent interest in grindhouse cinema. The release of the Grindhouse double feature from Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth in 2007 is likely the best candidate for the start of this resurgence, and since then dozens of films that revel in their own "low-budgetness" have come pouring out. Hobo with a Shotgun, Machete, Drive Angry; all of these films served up hyper-stylized violence, sex, and exploitation-cinema staples in a deliciously self-deprecating way. Attempting to add itself to this list is RZA's directorial debut: The Man With the Iron Fists.

I'm not much for rap or hip-hop; it's just not something I particularly care about. With that in mind, Wu-Tang Clan was always one of the rap artists to which I gave exception. Their martial-arts themed music was consistent and engagingly written, and de facto leader RZA was an irrefutably talented multi-instrumentalist. He's no stranger to cinema, of course, and has worked with a number of critically acclaimed film makers as an actor, writer, music producer and more. But The Man With The Iron Fists is his first turn in the director's chair, so how does it stack up?

The story follows a number of characters whose lives intertwine in the fictional 19th-century Chinese township of Jungle Village. A blacksmith (RZA) forges weapons for the various warring clans around the village, taking a job but never a side. But all that changes when a shipment of gold making its way through the village brings a number of colorful characters into the tiny village including the British soldier Jack Knife (Russel Crowe), a warrior named X-Blade (Rick Yune) bent on avenging his father's death, a hulking brute of a man who can turn his body into metal (David Bautista), and a small host of battle-ready characters whose motivations are as varied as their fighting styles.


The Man With The Iron Fists is almost exactly what you would expect a martial arts movie from RZA to be. There are high-wire stunts of all kinds, plumes of crimson accenting over-the-top death scenes, a moderate dose of Eastern mysticism that serves to underscore the epic themes of fantasy and kung fu, and - of course - plenty of head-bobbing hip hop along the way.

The strengths of The Man With The Iron Fists are readily noticeable. The entire film is a presented with an appropriately theatrical flourish that serves to remind viewers that the majority of the movie is an exercise in homage to the martial arts films of the 70s. Dialogue is intentionally kitschy throughout, and character development takes a back seat to fight scenes. Fortunately, the characters themselves are curiously intriguing enough without the development - as most of them are defined by their weapons and paraphernalia.

The cinematography starts out a little too kinetic and frantic, leaving the first major fight scene a bit of a visual mess. But fortunately this problem rights itself rather quickly, and the rest of the combat depicted in the film flows with choreographed grace and entertaining execution. The climactic battle scene is just a delight. All the major characters converge for a big showdown in the Pink Blossom - a brothel run by Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu) and housing a small army of warrior women who contribute some fantastically choreographed moments to the film's conclusion.

As I mentioned before, hip-hop isn't exactly my cup of tea musically speaking. But its placement in the film is both appropriate and tactful. RZA took it upon himself to score the film and select tracks appropriate to the scene; much as he did with Tarantino's Kill Bill and the resulting mix between Wu-Tang beats and orchestral arrangement is a pitch perfect companion to the rest of the film's aesthetic direction.


RZA is a much better director than he is an actor. In a film like this - one that's wrought around how "bad" it is - acting can be tricky, no doubt. Employ too much levity, and the dialogue becomes more silly than fun; not enough levity, and a character can stand out from the rest of their cast in an annoyingly bland way. This is more or less what happens with RZA's character, who looks fairly bored most of the movie. Maybe he was aiming for gravitas...but he missed.

The script could have used a few more rewrites and polishes. RZA shared writing duties with Eli Roth on this flick, and there's no denying that it's an adequately solid script. The pacing is more or less even, the multitudinous characters don't get in each other's way, there's a solid beginning-middle-end layout; all the boxes were checked. But one or two elements needed to be expanded further while a few others could have been done away with. For example, a rather extended "backstory" scene for The Blacksmith intrudes upon the tail end of the second act. It doesn't really serve any purpose except to get Pam Grier her cameo and felt a little forced.

For all its cinema-savvy, The Man With The Iron Fists falls just short of its mark. You can see it striving to be another grindhouse movie, to be spoken in the same breath as many of Tarantino's or Roth's or Rodriguez's commercially and critically successful films. It comes admirably close, but ultimately feels like it needed a more clearly unified vision.


The Man With The Iron Fists is an admirable directorial debut. All the marks of its varying influences are visible, and there's no doubt that RZA has a diverse skillset artistically. But the movie could have greatly benefited from one or two minor rewrites; and RZA could have greatly benefited from some time in the actor's studio.

There's no one thing to blame here, it's a collection of individual parts that are all adequate on their own - but when cobbled together don't feel as strong as they wish they were. And that's not to say that the film is without its strength at all. Nearly every negative feeling I had about this movie was almost completely eradicated by one of the most satisfying martial-arts-movie climaxes I've seen. It's really a fantastic battle sequence that's not too long and not too short and tidies up all the pesky narrative loose ends. And there's plenty of kicking and punching and wire-stunts and blood squibs to satisfy anyone interested in a little grindhouse-style action.

The movie is kind of a film-companion to Wu-Tang Clan's discography - so if you're a fan of their music you'll likely find little to disparage in this title. But for me, The Man With The Iron Fists comes so close to being what it's trying to be that it's all the more disappointing to see it fall short. Here's hoping RZA's next project spends just a little bit more time tinkering on its script.