Starring: Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, RZA, Cung Le, Byron Mann, Rick Yune, Jamie Chung
Anyone expecting The Man with the Iron Fists to be a big budget, action extravaganza-Hollywood blockbuster is going to be disappointed. Anyone expecting it to be Kill Bill part three is also going to be disappointed. But anyone who wants to see a ‘70s Shaw Brothers kung fu throwback will most likely have fun and walk away very entertained. The key here really is all about expectations. This is the first film from RZA, one of the most influential musicians and producers of the last 30 years. The man’s talent -- and his obsessive love for kung fu films, which is where the Wu-Tang Clan got their name -- is undeniable, but he is new to filmmaking. Cut the man some slack.
The Man with the Iron Fists sprouted as an idea during the shooting of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which RZA scored. He discussed the story idea with horror director Eli Roth, one of Tarantino’s proteges, and Roth and RZA eventually sat down to the pen the script together. A “presented by” credit from Tarantino and some A-list actors helped bring the project to fruition.
Set during nineteenth century China, a freed slave turned blacksmith lives in Jungle Village and navigates life amidst warring clans, many of whom want him to craft deadly weapons for their ongoing war. The blacksmith and his girlfriend, the prostitute Lady Silk, are saving up money to earn Silk’s freedom and to set out on their own. The Lion Clan are charged with protecting a shipment of the government’s gold, but Gold Lion, the leader, is betrayed and assassinated by his second and third in command, Silver Lion and Bronze Lion. They take command of the clan and plan to steal the gold from its protectors, assassins known as the Geminis. Gold Lion’s son Zen-Yi plots revenge against them. Meanwhile a stranger known as Jack Knife arrives at the Pink Blossom brothel on “vacation,” but it is clear he has ulterior motives. The brothel’s owner, Madam Blossom, is also more than she seems, and convinces Silver Lion to hide the gold in her booby trapped cellar as they prepare for attacks from various clans.
It may have been unwise for RZA to direct and write his first film and cast himself in the lead role, as he is an inexperienced actor and filmmaker, but he does better than expected as the blacksmith. The film’s major problem is that none of the characters are particularly well developed. The blacksmith has little dialogue and a lengthy, unnecessary flashback sequence in the middle of the film that pretty much brings the proceedings to a halt. Fortunately he is surrounded by some robust performances from actors like Russell Crowe, who is totally on top of his game as Jack Knife, the emperor’s opium-smoking, pussy-eating undercover agent. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have so much fun with a role. I don't really enjoy Russell Crowe as an actor (Romper Stomper and L.A. Confidential are notable exceptions), but every moment he's on screen here is delightful. For an added bit of interest, Jack Knife was allegedly based on Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA's cousin and fellow Wu-Tang Clan member.
Lucy Liu is decent as Madam Blossom, though due to the script limitations it feels like somewhat of a lazy reprisal of Kill Bill’s O-ren Ishii. Rick Yune (Ninja Assassin, Die Another Day, The Fast and the Furious) is good as Zen-Yi and has some very well choreographed fight scenes. The WWE’s David Batista appears as Brass Body, an evil martial artist with a special power. Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch) is the blacksmith’s lovely, if ineffectual girlfriend, Byron Mann is delightfully diabolical and vain as Silver Lion, and kickboxer Cung Le (True Legend) puts in an energetic performance as Bronze Lion and has a great fight sequence with Lucy Liu. There are numerous cameo appearances from exploitation and kung fu stars, such as Pam Grier, Chen Kuan-tai (Iron Monkey, Crippled Avengers), Gordon Liu, Bryan Leung (Five Shaolin Masters and dozens of other Shaw Brothers films throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s), and others.
The film is messy, both in terms of editing and script, and the direction is a bit clunky, but it's brimming with enthusiasm and love of the kung fu genre. Despite the fact that it bombed critically, there are enough positive elements to make it worth watching. There’s a typically good, if overwhelming score from RZA and Howard Drossin. The action sequences, which were choreographed by Corey Yuen (The Transporter), are some of the finest moments of the film and the lengthy sequences towards the climax are excellent. To RZA’s credit, practical effects were used in favor of CGI, though there is a bit of the latter. The film is very violent and gory, probably more in the vein of Kill Bill than ‘70s kung fu films. Russell Crowe gets to cut in a man in half.
Overall The Man with the Iron Fists is an uneven, but fun action flick and a flawed, yet entertaining first film from a director who clearly loves the genre. You could find plenty of things wrong with it, or you could just sit back and enjoy it for what it is: unabashed worship of the Shaw Brothers. Pick up the Blu-ray, which includes the special features and the extended, unrated cut as well as the theatrical version.