Wu-Tang Clan member RZA makes his directorial debut with The Man With the Iron Fists. This bloody homage to some great martial arts films from the past is an unfortunate mess that over-complicates itself too early and becomes just another spoof of the genre instead of an actual product. Iron Fists isn’t all bad though; RZA shows his visual competence with lots of frantic, yet digestible choreography and the soundtrack provides a unique kicker to the buckets and buckets of blood (mostly CGI, but occasionally practical). Hopefully RZA‘s next effort is a little more concrete.
There’s a village off the beaten path that is home to many psychotic characters. There’s Blacksmith (RZA); a peaceful maker of weapons that’s just trying to save up enough money to move him and his girl out of harm’s way and then there’s a handful of evil clan members that are all about stealing prized gold and causing mayhem to innocent townspeople. Thrown in the mix is a shady character by the name of Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), with an agenda that’s not quite certain.
Everything boils down to Madam Blossom’s (Lucy Liu) fine establishment/whore house. Clans/warriors/assassins from all around the village show up looking for gold that is in the hands of a few travelers that have stopped for the night. Throw in Jack Knife, Blacksmith and a few other outcasts and you have all of the ingredients for an old-fashioned brawl, done up with kung fu and lots of cutlery.
The Man With the Iron Fists is exactly what it looks like, only it’s not nearly as amusing as it should be. Wu-Tang member RZA trades in the hip-hop beats for a seat at the director’s chair (and as the main star) and in doing so he sort of overdoes a good thing. The RZA‘s music helps give the film some flow, but his acting can’t carry the film’s overly puzzling story, that he and Eli Roth wrote.
As a director RZA works in a mixed bag of shots. Specific scenes are well-filmed with proper camera placement and interesting set pieces, while other scenes are drenched with CGI blood and overused slow-mo shots. I get that RZA is a massive martial arts film fan and that he’s paying great respect to some genre classics, but at no point does The Man With the Iron Fists feel like its own film. It never drops the gimmick of being anything more than a wink and a nudge.
Russell Crowe relaxes and plays with his lines as the smooth and sly Jack Knife. He never steals a particular scene, but it’s always refreshing watching a man of talent appear after sitting through 10 minutes of Dave Bautista trying to act. In Bautista’s defense he’s perfectly cast as the literal Brass Body, but he’s no Crowe or even RZA when it comes to line delivery.
As I mentioned above, there are a lot of things that work in Iron Fists. The music is hip-hop greatness that features the likes of Kanye West, The Black Keys and even RZA himself. The fighting is fun if you’re into the gravity-defying martial arts style, with characters running and jumping off the walls in all sorts of tangling positions.
But then there’s the whole list of things that didn’t work, like the film’s pointlessly complex story that tries squeezing in 10 or 15 characters when 5 would have sufficed. RZA also made the poor choice of casting himself as the lead, which doesn’t work due to his mumbling half sentences that never register. He’s not the worst actor to grace the screen in the film, but he’s certainly not someone worthy of leading it.
Those expecting the next Black Dynamite (or even Machete) might be disappointed with The Man With the Iron Fists. Its heart is in the right place and RZA clearly has skills as a director, but he’s trying too hard wearing all of the hats as an actor, producer, writer and director. This spills out into the film and makes The Man With the Iron Fists somewhat of a misfire. It doesn’t completely drop the ball, but it gets closer than it should at times.
I find it really hard suggesting this one, because Iron Fists mostly sticks to familiar paths, never becoming a product of the genre that it’s mimicking, instead settling with being a mostly mediocre film, occasionally adding in some RZA influence.
The Man With the Iron Fists – 7/10