The least surprising thing about Wu-Tang Clan maven RZA’s feature film directorial debut The Man With the Iron Fists is that it’s pretty much exactly what fans of the hip-hop supergroup would exactly expect from it’s ringleader and master. What is surprising is just how competently the novice filmmaker asserts himself in making a pretty spot on homage to the films that helped to shape both his personal philosophies and his music. It’s wonky, to be sure, but the films he aims to mimic weren’t ever great pieces of filmmaking to begin with. They were fun bits of escapist fare to kick back and enjoy among friends, and so too is this project which somehow astoundingly got major studio backing (despite not being screened ahead of time for press).
Something evil’s brewin’ deep in the heart of Jungle Village somewhere in unspecified China. A local blacksmith (Bobby Digital, himself) finds himself caught between a major power play between warring clans over some gold or some shit. The plot itself is completely incidental in every way. All you need to know is that the blacksmith is involved in a doomed romance with a prostitute and he created the weapons that killed the father of his best friend. He gets his hands cut off for his hard work by a behemoth that blades don’t work on (former WWE star Dave Bautista), and he finds an ally in an amorous English drunk (Russell Crowe) who’s acting on behalf of the emperor to get to the bottom of things.
RZA gives us some old school Wu-bangin’ right off the bat and sets the tone. Less familiar audiences who have never seen any of the old Shaolin, Wu-Tang, or really anything from the Shaw Brothers might be at a complete loss. The film really isn’t a beginner’s course in old school kung-fu cinema, but that’s part of the charm of it all and the wonder that it even got made in the first place. It’s a big budget spectacle geared towards a very specific type of fan, and RZA never dumbs it down. In many ways, it’s an oddly personal film that suffers only really from the typical trappings that a first time feature filmmaker would make.
To be certain, there’s a clear dividing line one can see between what was written by RZA and which parts were crafted by co-scribe Eli Roth, icking things up somewhat unnecessarily and out of left field at time, but even then, both seem to be on the same page in terms of getting the job done. The editing isn’t the most assured, and the film also feels very disingenuous at times with its use of CGI gore, but RZA’s energy as a director (not so much as an actor, but he doesn’t have to be in that department for this type of film to work) and some great practical effects from the ever reliable folks at KNB balance that out quite nicely.
In terms of production design, cinematography, and fight choreography (courtesy of the multitalented Cory Yuen) the movie, to borrow a Wu-ism, ain’t nothin’ to fuck with. The set pieces are unexpectedly lavish, including numerous scenes at the brothel of the blacksmith’s betrothed to be (run by a gleeful Lucy Liu, who seems psyched to be playing a bad ass once again) and a particularly effective showdown in a restaurant involving a male and female team of assassins that wouldn’t be out of place in a Quentin Tarantino production.
RZA employs a wide array of styles to his film to make it seem equally modern and delightfully old fashioned. The obvious effects that never could have been done in the 60s and 70s without killing anyone are somewhat ingeniously integrated here, and at times his use of split screens and Crowe’s entire character arc feel delightfully European and spaghetti western influenced.
Even in the acting department, which normally doesn’t get very many shout outs here, the work is pretty universally solid outside of RZA’s man of few words and grunts. Aside from Liu, Crowe delivers a delightfully relaxed performance. It’s so much fun watching Crowe be able to let go and just have some scenery chewing fun for a change since there’s no way anyone could ever take his Shakespearian character all that seriously. But the real stand-out here has to be the ultra-flamboyant performance from Byron Mann as the film’s chief villain, Silver Lion, who seems like the Asian equivalent of Dave Chappelle playing Prince.
The Man With the Iron Fists is of the “you get it or you don’t” kind of cinema. Those who find themselves on RZA’s possibly herbaly enhanced wavelength will get a kick out of the howlingly cheesy dialogue and over the top grotesquery. Those unfamiliar with shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style could be in for a rough go of it, but even there’s elements that are of somewhat universal appeal to lovers of finely aged cheese. Even if it does start to run out of steam as it approaches the climax, it’s consistently entertaining for the type of film it is. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is exactly the film RZA set out to create, and he deserves a pat on the back for achieving just that. It replicates sitting in a basement with friends watching worn out VHS tapes pretty nicely. Now where’s my Killer tape at?