We like to think that, with enough love, time money and knowledge, we can make great things happen. The disinterested universe, however, just doesn’t work that way.
It would come as no surprise to anyone that knows anything about rap music, The RZA, or the Wu Tang Clan and its many offshoots, that he has a deep love and knowledge of classic Hong Kong martial arts flicks. Almost every Wu Tang (et al) song I can think of has a sample from an old kung fu movie, replete with poorly overdubbed dialogue and the sounds of people fighting.
A natural next step, you could argue, would be that a man who so wished he could insert himself into the past, into the movies he loves, the movies that consume his vision, his hopes and dreams, would try to make such a movie. And so we have The Man With the Iron Fists, starring RZA in a lead role.
In this he has endeavoured to make a movie like the movies he loves. Unfortunately, he is in the same position I am in.
Let me clarify: I love those movies too. I’d love to make one of those movies. I’d be terrible at it, though, because I have no idea how to direct a martial arts movie, let alone any movie. I don’t possess the skills necessary, or the hard-won experience required, and I wouldn’t magically possess them just because I’ve watched like a thousand of those flicks over the last 30 years.
They are not skills you pick up through osmosis, and I’ve never suffered from the delusion that just because I watch a lot of movies, wank on about them, and write reviews about them, that it somehow means I know how to make movies. Completely different prospects, they are. Just because I can tell the time looking at my watch doesn’t make me a watchmaker.
With all due respect to RZA, who clearly is passionate about these films, if he wanted to make a decent martial arts movie, he should have learned how to direct first. It’s rare to see something so poorly directed. Even the most average of films these days has at least competent set ups and coverage and the like. This makes Kevin Smith’s films look well directed.
The Man With the Iron Fists isn’t, despite what you might think, a satire or a parody of those flicks. It’s not an Edgar Wright-like Shaun of the Dead / Hot Fuzz take on the genre, with references and in-jokes and such, or something like Black Dynamite, as in a contemporary piss-take on the Blaxploitation genre. It’s striving to be a faithful version of a Shaw Brothers flicks from the 1960s or 70s, and not a comment on it. What sets it apart is that it’s mostly in English (as opposed to being dubbed from Cantonese, though they might have played with that a bit), there’s RZA as the titular character, so he’s an African-American character in 19th Century China, and one of the main roles is played by Russell Crowe.
The rest of the casting is somewhat perplexing. There’s no attempt to make it slick or seamless. So the wigs worn by most of the Chinese characters look like 2$ Shop wigs, like the one I got my daughter for Halloween. The main villain, Silver Lion, (Byron Mann), kinda looks like Prince circa the early 1980s, and has big foofy metal hair from the same period. The problem with the hair was that its bigness and foofiness, hard to maintain, would vary from shot to shot, so that he was looking like he was rapidly shifting from good to bad to good to bad hair day over the course of 30 seconds of screen time.
The cast, with the possible exception of Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, seem to be accidentally bad-acting as opposed to doing it on purpose, and that probably comes down to poor direction, though, truly, the weakest actor in the whole thing is RZA. For all his talents and success as a music producer, those skills do not extend to acting and direction, I’m very sorry to say. Nor do they extend to scriptwriting or dialogue.
He knows what he wants the flick to look like, though. He knows what the settings and dynamics are meant to be. He doesn’t know how to get what he wants, though, because you would have thought the absolute most important aspect to such a devotee of Hong Kong films would be to get the fights and the fight choreography right.
That’s the flicks biggest failure right there: the fights are, with one or two exceptions, ordinary at best and incompetent at worst. They aspire to use practical effects for the fights, to keep it more in line with the original flicks, but they don’t do it competently, and then resort to a heap of CGI as the flick progresses, making it less and less enjoyable.
And it didn’t look like any of these actors or their stunt people knew how to fight in the slightest. I find it impossible to believe that legendary fight choreographer Corey Yuen, credited here, actually did have anything to do with these fights. If he did, then the editing really let him, the flick and us down.
This is, after all, a man who made the world believe Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne were good fighters in the Matrix films.It’s all about crafting an illusion, and this flick conjures nothing except disappointment.
The setting for this flick is a place called Jungle Village, where the black blacksmith works, making weapons for the various violent clans. He does so because, hey, a man’s got to make a living, and because he’s trying to buy the freedom of his favourite whore from the local brothel run by Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu).
Then, there’s something about a shipment of gold, and rival clans doing stuff to each other, and some guy comes out of nowhere whose skin transforms into brass whenever he likes (former wrestler Bautista), and some British guy with a funky knife (Russell Crowe), and the non-evil son of some clan leader who was working with the bad guys (the almost comically inexpressive lump of wood Ricky Yune).
Of course the plot’s bullshit. The plot’s always bullshit in flicks like these, going back over forty years. That’s not a problem. It’s a problem when the bits connecting the various elements are irritating, and you can’t imagine the point of much of what you’re watching.
Crowe seems like he’s having fun, but he spends much of the flick lumbering about as if the girdle they must have strapped onto him is giving him the gyp, and he spends way too much time abusing prostitutes. He also has the absolute worst fight scene towards the end, where it looks like he either didn’t have the time or inclination to learn any choreography, or that they never thought a chap of his, uh, current proportions, could credibly carry them off.
The career of Sammo Hung would seem to argue against that, since he’s always been a roly-poly bundle of fist and foot fu fury for something like 40 years, for crying out loud, and he’s in his sixties, for crying out even louder.
There’s not really much more percentage in talking about the plot, because it’s not going to provide us with much of value. I think Lucy Liu came out of this okay, in that she can hold her head up high over both her acting and her fight scenes. I know that she’s no better a fighter than any of the rest of them here, but she at least makes it look believable, and she has a smile on her face as she’s doing it. Charming as always, my dear.
There is a fair bit of gore here, far gorier than many of the flicks I recall from the era, but I don’t have a problem with that. What it leads to, though, is some fairly uninspiring scenes where nothing interesting enough is going on, and the makers seem to be saying “Fuck it, let’s cover up our lack of budget and skill by just having a bunch of blood explode all over the place”.
As for the Iron Fists of the title… well, it’s funny, I’ll grant them that. Since RZA plays the Man of the title, and doesn’t have Iron Fists when the movie starts, you have to reasonably assume that he’s going to grow them at some stage. When it happens, well, let me just say that I was laughing, but I don’t think it was meant to be funny.
Let me put it to you differently: if someone had their arms cut off in 19th Century China, how would you expect that they’d get new metal hands that work perfectly well, and help them beat up people who’s skin spontaneously turns into brass? Well, they just do. That’s all, they just do.
If I could accept it in Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness, I guess I have to accept it here too.
Actually, no, fuck that, this is just silly and a waste of our time. Maybe if I were drunk I wouldn’t have minded, but, no, this felt like a waste of my precious time. At least this flick made me nostalgic, definitely, but that’s about the most positive feeling I had towards it. It was a shemozzle, and not in a good way, and it made me feel sorry for all the people involved.
3 times the soundtrack is the best part of the movie, which means at least RZA couldn’t fuck that one thing up out of 10
“My name is Mister Knife, You may call me Jack.” – okay then, now we've got the nomenclature out of the way – The Man With the Iron Fists.