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.
Oh man, I agree. If anything this might be one of the most unique films with the East meets West vibes. I was super disappointed in it, but find it intriguing enough to watch repeatedly.
I’m stoked for the second one.
I’m just shocked at how well it was able to capture that old school vibe, and I don’t know if I can think of any American film that has ever really done that (besides the Pai Mei training section of Kill Bill 2). I had no expectations so I avoided being disappointed. When the trailer first dropped and I saw all the CG, that’s what really disappointed me and made me continually push off watching it until now. The second one does look interesting and pretty much completely different than this one. Before I saw the trailer I thought maybe they had just recut the extra footage into some kind of a sequel, but that definitely doesn’t look like the case. Whatever it is, I hope it’s fun!
Hey again Will! Glad the movie’s growing on you. Reading your review made me realize how one of the great things in this movie is how it really gave my speaker’s/subs a run for their money. I’ve been a Wu-Tang fan since the 90’s after my California friend recommended me Wu-Tang, Tupac, and Notorious B.I.G. since I was rap illiterate [;. Well all we got now is Wu-Tang and since they’re not what they used to be, now we got Rza. A little background, he does all the Wu-Tang beats, he’s pretty was the director of Wu-Tang. His cousins, Gza and O.D.B. [old dirty bastard from an untrackable so far kung fu movie] were his lead backups along with a very famous crew. Well he obviously hit it off well with Tarantino and scored part of Kill Bill as well as Jarmusch doing the entire soundtrack to Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai [extremely good movie]. As an actor he played a thug in a Jennifer Aniston, Clive Owen movie and recently he had a bad luck streak playing the Villain in Paul Walker’s [good friend of his] last movie Brick Mansion’s which is a remake of one of my favorite foreign action movie’s District B13, one of Luc Besson’s side projects. [out of breath]
Yeah, the music is good, I have a bunch of songs from it. I can imagine it sounding pretty good on a surround setup! I saw Ghost Dog way back when it came out on VHS and I don’t remember anything about the music. It makes me curious to re-watch it. Have you seen the Japanese movie Branded to Kill? There’s a few things taken from that movie in Ghost Dog, like the shooting up the drain thing. Ahh, I still havrn’t seen District B13 yet. There’s too many movies!
Hmm, haven’t heard of Branded to Kill yet [shockingly], gonna check it out since wikipedia calls it an “Absurdist Masterpiece” also. Yeah I grew up in an Asian household so I’m actually burnt out on most asian stuff, a less absurdist serial killer movie by Kurosawa called High and Low not sure if you’ve seen that. Yeah it says Ghost Dog is really inspired by Le Samurai as well which makes a lot of sense, and I’m really into European stuff [having an upper french last name]. Well the internet’s bringing everyone together these days which is great, I’m downloading the R-rated Man with the Iron Fists now 15 minutes less sometimes it’s good to cut some of the violence and whatnot from what we watch. Just don’t burn out on what you watch man remember why you started in the first place. I’m trying to write my first solo screenplay, it’s tough pinpointing a genre and all that, the other day I got excited about writing Reservoir Dog’s 2 just because I can, maybe get some attention ha who flippin’ knows man.
I only knew about Branded to Kill because it’s in the Criterion Collection and I thought it had a cool cover. I remember it being pretty good, but I saw it like 10 years ago. I love High and Low, but again I haven’t seen it in 15 years. I was all about Kurosawa back then. Have been meaning to get back to watching his stuff again. Maybe when I finish off some of these series. Haven’t seen Le Samouri, but I’ve always wanted to.
Good luck with the writing! It’s tough.
Rounding out the wealth of replies here but I watched the R-rated version last night, and surprisingly I couldn’t even tell what was missing or not, my best guess is that a lot of the blood was cut as I noticed only like 5 major CG bits. Also, gonna have to stand by my Russell Crowe opinion, I was a fan of his before Gladiator since Virtuosity and Quick and the Dead and his career’s been fairly boring the last 10-15 years except for 3:10 to Yuma. Yeah his character’s a major sleeze and they get offensively over the top in the brothel scenes but I liked how he was kind of the Man with No Name character [I don’t think Jack Knife’s his real name] who’s enjoying the success he’s had after years of going from town to town to town. It was funny how his character had an australian twang in the music whenever he was on screen and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to have him as an American character in the eastern world since we all know how much the Japanese and Chinese movie’s swapped stories and ideas over the years. Other than that though thanks for following through on my lead I know your into these things reading all your guy’s reviews and yeah writing stories has gotten a lot easier for me I think, the tough part is getting people together and paying them and feeding them and all that, guess we’ll see what happens!!!
I like your thought that Russell Crowe’s character is like an aged, cocky Man with No Name. I don’t know that’s what they were going for, but it makes so much sense and it adds this unspoken layer of depth to his character. I’m usually horrible about watching movies people recommend to me in any kind of timely manner, but I made an effort on this one. I didn’t intend to write a long review either, but when I started I realized there was no way to express myself without a full review. I’m really glad I finally watched it, so thanks!