Starring RZA, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe, Byron Mann, Lucy Liu, Dave Bautista, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, Daniel Wu, Zhu Zhu, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Andrew Ng, Grace Huang, Andrew Lin, Chen Kuan-Tai, Leung Kar-Yan, MC Jin, Pam Grier, Jon T. Benn
Directed by RZA
Expectations: Low, but hopeful.
The Man with the Iron Fists is a strange movie, without a doubt. But I don’t think it’s bad; it’s more oddly misguided than anything else. What’s weird is that it feels this way based almost completely on how much RZA gets right in his homage to the classic kung fu films of the Shaw Brothers. Yes, “right.” The sets are magnificent and recapture the opulence of Shaw sets beautifully, the wirework is delivered with top-notch Hong Kong skill, and the story is filled with the wide range of colorful characters that any good wuxia demands. The weapons are suitably eccentric, and the battles are all well choreographed (by Corey Yuen), too. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that The Man with the Iron Fists was actually a Chinese production. RZA actually managed to resurrect the spirit of classic kung fu films, but — and this is where the “strange” comes in — the lens we experience all this classic kung fu goodness through is that of modern American filmmaking.
So because the film has so much good working for it, the bad sticks out and demands to be reckoned with in more apparent and frustrating ways than would otherwise be noticeable. The choice to film primarily in English is an expected one, but, at least for me, many of the actors sounded more like ’70s kung fu dubbing than actual actors in a scene. This could be bad acting, poor direction, or it could be by design. If it is intentional, that’s one hell of a bold choice for an unproven, first-time director making what is essentially a large-scale vanity project, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was true. I’m sure RZA grew up watching the dubs that made their way to the States in the ’70s, and as a result has a nostalgic fondness for them. No matter what the reason, though, it’s off-putting, especially to someone like me that has never really grown fond of those iconic dub jobs.
The fights are arguably the most important part of a kung fu film, and this is another area where The Man with the Iron Fists falters a bit. Every battle is forgettable and unfocused, with seemingly great choreography lost amidst the American camera angles and quick-cut editing. Casting non-martial arts actors in fighting roles really kills the chances of the film to soar, too. It may have worked for Jimmy Wang Yu in the ’60s, but all these years later everyone’s seen some truly impressive on-screen martial arts battles before. So, for instance, when the RZA fights Dave Bautista it’s not all that exhilarating. All of the fights do manage to be a lot of fun, though, and are peppered with relentless gore and creativity.
As for the story, it’s one of the most recycled plots in kung fu movie history (and I say that in an affectionate “I love kung fu movies” kinda way): a gold shipment is on its way to town, so a bunch of clans hoping to steal it converge and fight for supremacy. These clans have history with each other, too, and The Man with the Iron Fists does a fantastic job of making these relationships feel like years of back story have gone down the river. The one issue I have with the story is that there’s a shitload of characters, many of which are interesting enough to lead a movie of their own, but there’s not really a main character. Even the most convoluted wuxia has a central hero! It’s a must! RZA is supposed to be our lead, but he’s barely in the first half of the movie, and for that first half it isn’t even clear that his blacksmith character even matters much to the story. I don’t know that more RZA would actually benefit the movie, but without any focus on him, there’s no central driving energy for the audience to invest themselves in.
That’s what I say as a reviewer, but I can also say that the first hour is very energetic and moves really fast. RZA introduces us — via a shitload of narration — to the well-populated kung fu world he’s fashioned here. This is where I’d be highly interested in seeing the initial 4-hour cut because it feels like there is a wealth of material that was probably edited out of this section because it moves at a breakneck pace through a TON of material. RZA does eventually become the lead, but if there was a hero in the first half it’d have to be the town itself, Jungle Village. And a literal town isn’t all that heroic of a heroic lead.
There’s other huge missed opportunities, too. Why do genre legends like Chen Kuan-Tai and Leung Kar-Yan (AKA “Beardy”) only get a couple of minutes on-screen? At least Gordon Liu’s role is worth someone of his legacy. The beat-driven score works really well to add dope beats to the goings-on, but the songs on the soundtrack feel completely disconnected and superfluous. You’d think someone coming from the music world would have better sense, but it feels like these songs were arbitrary picked by a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey at a 1st grader’s birthday party. Oh, and CG blood. That one’s really frustrating, because KNB FX were on-set already doing a bunch of gore FX. There is a fair amount of their work showcased in the film, but often it is augmented by horrid CG blood. There’s no reason for it; paying dudes already there for a few dozen splats of blood has to be cheaper than digital artists adding blood later on. I hope at least one of those guys adding CG blood had a severe crisis of character and argued with themselves about “becoming a sell-out” by painting over the work of KNB. Do I go into the Louvre and paint over the Mona Lisa? Do I sprinkle dollar-store Parmesan on pasta made by the skilled hands of Gordon Ramsay? NO! So don’t shit on KNB!
Anyway, while I do have a lot of problems and general quandaries about The Man with the Iron Fists, I did enjoy it quite a lot. I like the pieces it’s made up of more than the end result. For instance, the flashback to the Blacksmith’s past in America is great fun and it features Pam Grier and Jon T. Benn (AKA the big boss from The Way of the Dragon), but it feels somewhat empty. And that’s kinda how the whole movie feels: cool, but empty.
If you know what you’re getting yourself into and you don’t have any expectations, The Man with the Iron Fists might entertain and amuse you. It’s probably a fair bet that it won’t because a good majority of people didn’t like it, but you never know! I say it’s fun, enjoyable and quite an interesting watch, in spite of any issues I had with it. Oh, and I watched the longer DVD cut for whatever that’s worth.