I was rather excited when I saw the commercial for RZA’s The Man With the Iron Fists. The Wu Tang Clan super producer finally had the chance to bring his demonstrated love of Chinese martial arts culture to the big screen. RZA has been fusing Chinese culture into music since he first beckoned us to enter the 36 chambers back in 1993. Wildly creative, even when it produces mixed results (anyone remember the Bobby Digital album?) – RZA has never been afraid to forge new ground. It should be no surprise that his first foray into filmmaking yielded positive results, even though he relies on some help from a talented cast that included Russell Crowe (The Next Three Days), as I’ve never seen him.
RZA stars as an unassuming blacksmith in ancient China. He calls Jungle Village home, a town overrun by powerful clans. Caught between warring factions, the blacksmith must fashion weaponry for the gangs without pledging allegiance to any particular one. Running a profitable but dangerous enterprise, he earns his keep so that he and his woman Lady Silk (Jamie Chung, Sucker Punch) can leave town and make a better life for themselves. Things take a turn for the worst when the leader of the Lion Clan is murdered by his own lieutenant. The turncoat is Silver Lion, a ruthless warrior who wants to take over Jungle Village. He and Bronze Lion conspired to murder Gold Lion, the leader of their gang and a relatively peaceful captain.
After his death, his son Zen Yi (Rick Yune, Ninja Assassin) travels to Jungle Village to investigate and avenge his father’s demise. Complicating matters is the Lion Clan’s planned hijack of a shipment of gold bullion belonging to the governor of their province. The shipment is being guarded by the Gemini Twins, a pair of deadly martial artists. Also tracking the bullion is Jack Knife (Crowe), a British soldier who seems like he prefers the brothel to the battlefield. Earning his moniker through handiwork with a scissored blade, Jack is a formidable opponent who is not afraid of the Lion Clan.
The backstory of the movie involves Lady Silk’s employer, Madam Blossom. She runs Jungle Village’s Pink Blossom brothel, where both the Lion Gang and Jack Knife are shacking up. Madam Blossom and her stable of lovelies have their own designs on the gold bullion and are not to be underestimated. RZA’s blacksmith is the titular character of the movie, but the wide cast of characters shape his existence and are an integral part of the storyline, which ventures all over the place. The blacksmith’s loyalty to Zen Yi costs him dearly, but he eventually uses his newfound disability to his advantage, becoming the man with the iron fists. With Jack and Zen Yi as allies, the stage is set for an unforgettable showdown with the Lions.
The Man With the Iron Fists won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The dialogue is often campy and “on the nose,” and even the costumes and makeup are ridiculous in some instances. For example, Silver Lion looked like Prince, at least to me. Despite these laughable elements, I thought the movie was great – and even those comical aspects may have been intentional. Those old Kung Fu movies that probably inspired RZA weren’t exactly known for their profound acting performances. Any shortcomings by the cast were more than made up for by the performances of Lucy Liu and Russell Crowe. Crowe particularly seemed to relish his role, a fun and raucous departure from his more recent efforts. Lucy Liu is no stranger to the physical demands of her character, having played O-Ren Ishii in Tarantino’s Kill Bill vol. 1, which was not so coincidentally scored by the RZA.
Speaking of Tarantino, his imprint is all over this one, which is not a bad thing. Of course RZA is no Tarantino, but this was a fun movie that will undoubtedly please its intended audience. RZA has his own style, and his musical background provided for some unique cinematic sequences. I don’t know how involved directors typically are in scoring their movies, but the musical choices here were perfect. RZA eschewed traditional filmmaking and created an unconventional movie with a dope score to boot. It won’t ever be nominated for Best Picture, but it sure makes for a cool day at the movies. Grade: B
This review first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.