Review: The Man With the Iron Fists
PLOT: In feudal China, a humble blacksmith (RZA) is caught in a battle for power between a virtuous clan leader (Rick Yune) and his evil second-in-command (Byron Mann). Meanwhile, a mysterious English solider of fortune, Jack (Russell Crowe) arrives at Madam Blossom's (Lucy Liu) brothel for a few days of relaxation- but does he have more on his mind that orgies and opium?
REVIEW: I was very disappointed to hear that Universal wasn't screening THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS for the press in Montreal. I'm a hard-core Kung-Fu flick fan from way back, and I was looking forward to seeing what the RZA- a long time Shaw-Bros devotee, had cooked up for his feature directorial debut.
So, like any good genre fan, I ignored the reviews, ponied up my $12.50, and checked out a matinee hoping for the best. Certainly, any hardcore action flick with Russell Crowe, and eye-candy like Lucy Liu and Jamie Chung couldn't be all bad? Eh, not quite- but close enough.
While THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS tries hard to pay tribute to old-school Shaw Bros., favorites like FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, or FIVE DEADLY VENOMS, RZA's film is frustratingly uneven. Perhaps he bit off a bit more than he could chew with this all-out Kung-Fu extravaganza. Certainly, no one who's listened to his commentary tracks on the Dragon Dynasty Shaw flicks can dispute that he knows the genre well- but in making it contemporary by including wall-to-wall hip hop, and dodgy CGI, RZA kinda kills the vibe he was going for. In the end, this comes off like one of the dozens of Chinese movies Miramax bought in the nineties, and re-release with inappropriate hip-hop soundtracks and all to contemporary dialogue.
Given that he's mostly known for his work with Wu-Tang, it's not a huge surprise that RZA loaded his soundtrack with hip-hop, but I can't help but wonder how the film would have come off had he taken a page from executive producer Quentin Tarantino and given the film more of a Shaw appropriate sound, as RZA himself did with the KILL BILL VOL. 1 score. That said, hip-hop is far from the film's only trouble.
The plot, as per most Shaw Bros., epics is nonsensical- so, I guess that can't be considered too harsh a criticism, although the jokey way everything is set into motion makes this feel like yet another wannabe Grindhouse throwback. The thing is, the sincerity of true Grindhouse movies is what really makes them special, and goofy as they are, the Shaw films were never self-consciously bad. In a way, RZA himself (along with co-writer Eli Roth) seems to recognize this, with the film suddenly taking an ultra-earnest turn in the second half, revealing the blacksmith's roots as a runaway slave. I suppose he felt the need to explain how a black dude ended up in a Chinese village, but considering that everyone speaks English in Feudal China, this wasn't really necessary- and it's too little too late.
Everything lousy about THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS could have been forgiven had the fights been up to snuff, but on the whole they aren't, despite choreography by Corey Yuen, a Hong Kong film legend. The sloppy editing, close cutting, and shady wire-work ruins pretty much all of the fights, even when featuring legit martial artists like Cung Le and Dave Bautista (playing a warrior capable of turning to iron at will). Really, the only time the film comes to life is in the scenes featuring either Lucy Liu or Russell Crowe. Liu seems to be having a ball paying homage to her own part in KILL BILL- although she's probably more sympathetic here (and looks delicious, as does Jamie Chung as her number one girl). Crowe, while certainly not a martial artist (and pretty paunchy with his NOAH weight)- looks like he's having the time of his life as a seedy English Mercenary, and despite rumors to the contrary, it's not simply a cameo. His introduction, where he demonstrates the gory effectiveness of his knife-gun combo, is pretty damn juicy, and he chews the scenery with panache. As for leading man, RZA- he does relatively well, and seems like a pretty good martial artist, but he seems a little passive to make for a really intriguing hero.
In the end, it's Liu and Crowe who save the movie, along with the occasional bit of over the top nonsense courtesy of the villain (Byron Mann, sporting a Rod Stewart circa 1984 mullet) that makes this almost worth seeing. While I can't really recommend rushing out to see it in theaters, when it inevitably hits Netflix or cable, it might be worth checking out with some buds. But other than that, this is a definite pass.
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