Well, I think we all knew this was coming: RZA, co-founder of the legendary rap outfit, the Wu-Tang Clan, has produced, directed, co-written, starred in, and composed the soundtrack for a martial arts movie. You can’t say we weren’t warned. First he began acting in offbeat movies like Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Coffee and Cigarettes, then he united with Quentin Tarantino to compose the soundtrack for Kill Bill. Given the fact that he named his rap group after an old Kung Fu movie, it was only a matter of time before the man directed a martial arts flick himself. So how is The Man with the Iron Fists? Oh, it’s terrible. Not even so bad it’s good. Don’t be fooled by Quentin Tarantino’s name being plastered all over the movie, Tarantino had nothing to do with this one.
Chief among this movie’s sins is that it’s a Kung Fu movie without a lot of action. Yeah, there are a couple of bloody fun action sequences scattered throughout, but the flick’s 90 minute runtime is primarily devoted to following the members of several warring clans while they shift alliances and stab each other in the back. RZA and co-writer Eli Roth have written an utterly incomprehensible movie.
Clearly RZA attempted to mimic the look and feel of the classic Shaw Bros Kung Fu flicks of the ‘70s just as Tarantino did with portions of Kill Bill. To some extent, RZA was successful. He’s clearly seen a lot of Kung Fu movies. The Man with the Iron Fists boasts a mostly Asian cast and the 19th century Chinese setting of so many Kung Fu movies. Just like with the old Shaw Bros flicks, there are some elaborate martial arts styles and a bit of free flowing blood.
However, the best Shaw Bros flicks were always simple and straightforward: There’s a peaceful good guy who practices one form of martial arts and a ruthless bad guy who practices another type of martial arts; the two spend the flick duking it out until the good guy proves the superiority of his martial arts by killing the bad guy (or bad guys) in combat. The old Shaw Bros flicks were a lot of things, but they were never complicated and they were never boring. Shaw Bros flicks were 25% talking and 75% fighting, and they were 100% awesome.
On the other hand, I honestly can’t tell you what The Man with the Iron Fists is even about. RZA stars as the village blacksmith who makes a variety of weapons for the village’s warring clans, Lucy Lui shows up as the madame of a high end brothel, there’s a subplot about a shipment of gold that will soon pass through the village, and Russell Crowe turns up as knife-wielding British assassin. There’s also host of other characters and loose ends, but I couldn’t follow the lazy political intrigue of this movie.
There’s a lot of talking and a lot of exposition here, but it’s all meaningless babble. Worse, there’s not nearly enough fighting to divert attention away from how nonsensical and weak the story is. Supposedly, RZA’s original cut of The Man with the Iron Fists was over four hours long, but Eli Roth insisted on chopping it down to 90 minutes. Would the extra material have made a difference? I doubt it. I suspect the extra two and a half hours amounted to more intrigue and more subplots, but no additional action.
This movie also suffers from the casting of RZA in the lead role. He narrates the entire flick with an emotionless mumble, and his performance is dead-eyed and flat. RZA has turned in some decent supporting performances in Funny People and American Gangster, but here he makes Quentin Tarantino look like a young Marlon Brando, and even Tarantino was never so vain as to cast himself in the lead role in any of his films. Here, RZA not only takes the lead role, but makes himself into the baddest, toughest character in the entire movie. It’s all a bit silly, because RZA couldn’t be more out of place in his own project.
If another African American actor like Michael Jai White had been cast as the lead, perhaps this movie would have been salvageable despite its many flaws. As it is, we’re left with some enjoyably campy performances from Russell Crowe, Byron Mann, and Lucy Lui, but not much else.
On the plus side, the soundtrack is suitably fantastic. It’s a wonderful mixture of hip hop, rap, and a rock, boasting songs from the likes of Method Man, Ghostface Killah, and The Black Keys among others. The soundtrack is original, eclectic, and somehow entirely appropriate for a badass Kung Fu movie. Usually a soundtrack serves as something of an advertisement for the film it appears in, but with The Man with the Iron Fists, the effect is the opposite. This is a movie that makes me want to buy the soundtrack and forget about the film itself.
However, I’m not going to go so far as to say that RZA shouldn’t quit his day job. I understand and respect what RZA was trying to do with this movie, I really do. And on some level, he came pretty close to pulling it off. If RZA had simply handed the lead role to a capable actor and hired a professional screenwriter, I think The Man with the Iron Fists could have been a cool retro Kung Fu movie. There are still glimmers of a talented filmmaker lurking in even this mess of a movie. I just hope that the talented RZA displays a little less hubris with his next filmmaking effort.