The Man with the Iron Fists is all appreciation and no perspective. It hopes to get by on a certain level of considered cool. For the most part, it does.
Man, having friends in high places really pays off. Though he's a legend in the hip-hop community, RZA is not known for his cinematic acumen. Sure, his efforts with the Wu-Tang Clan (and the occasional film score) have made him a name -- a very famous and revered name- - but taking on a genre as beloved and aesthetically diverse as the martial arts action thriller requires more than just mere fandom. It demands understanding, ability, and a way around the innumerable pitfalls that befall any filmmaker, especially a fledgling first timer. Luckily, RZA shows the skills that will eventually pay most of his Hollywood bills in The Man with the Iron Fists. While it's overly talky and limited in stunt spectacle, it's a decent shout-out to the Shaw Brothers' shelf at your '80s Mom and Pop video store.
The story centers on a shipment of gold. The tiny enclave of Jungle Village will be one of the main stopping off points for this massive government treasure as its being delivered to the armies of the North. Due to the infighting amongst the clans, a local blacksmith (RZA) works diligently to forge unimaginable weapons of death. Eventually, the ruling Lions gang implodes, with Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le) killing their leader and plotting to rob the riches themselves. Using the Pink Blossom brothel and its manipulative Madam (Lucy Liu) as the center of their score, they hope to keep fellow member Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) for thwarting their efforts. Into this potential war walks a mysterious Englishman (Russell Crowe) and an enforcer (David Bautista) who can turn his body into bronze. Together, they will compete to win the booty, though the body count may be larger than any pile of precious metal.
With an excess of exposition and a flair for flying fu, The Man with the Iron Fists is like stumbling upon a highly polished version of those otherwise awful dubbed atrocities that passed as martial arts movies in the '80s and '90s. It's Mad Monkey Kung Fu sans the full screen, pan and scan, awkward English language limits. It's both homage and hero worship, a film that attempts to avoid the trappings of most referential revisits and yet falls victim to them all at one time or another. There are moments when you wish RZA and his screenwriting partner Eli Roth would just shut up and kick some butt. We don't need the Blacksmith's backstory, his love life (with a prostitute he is trying to buy out of servitude) or the various intricate clan details. Just set up the story- - there's some gold that everyone wants -- give us the main players, and then put them in wire harnesses and let them fly around, mano-y-martial-arts-mano.
But no, The Man with the Iron Fists has more to say than any 90-minute action movie should tolerate. When Mann is onscreen, chewing the beautiful Asian art direction as a mean, mincing madman, we enjoy the comedic diversion... that is, until RZA gives basically the same thing to everyone. Liu gets her speechifying moment. So does Crowe (although his debaucherous response to a Pink Blossom interruption is quite clever). As for his character, RZA "becomes" the title entity in a sequence that's as gory as it is goofy. There is a lot of blood here, the screen often spattered with arterial spray. Yet in order to make up for a lack of sheer showmanship, the movie makes us listen to numerous nonsensical conversations before getting to the good stuff.
As a director, RZA shows a lot of promise. He has a great eye for detail and an even better sense of space. We get a real feel for Jungle Village, enjoy the frequent tracking and overhead shots that give us a sense of what's going on in preparation for the eventual chaos. There's also some inventive turns here, like Bautista's ability to turn metal, or the mechanical limbs that Blacksmith fabricates for himself. There's even a wholly unnecessary but beautifully done sequence where acknowledged genre legend Gordon Liu instructs our hero on the ways of the Buddhist and the Shaolin. While this kind of movie mandates such a sidestep, it also argues for RZA's novice status. The Shaws and their extensive talent pool knew how to balance story with smackdowns. The Man with the Iron Fists can't seem to find an appropriate entertainment equilibrium.
The result is something that is either a noble failure or a deeply, deeply flawed success. Because he was so busy catering to his memories of Saturday nights with his friends and a pile of video cassettes, RZA fails to find the necessary cinematic sense required to successfully bring this material to the new millennium. Instead, it seems stuck in perpetual reruns, a soon to be regular feature as part of Blackbelt TV's otherwise measly programming schedule. If "men's" network Spike made a movie, it would look a little something like this - an attempt to imitate a genre without fully understanding it. The Man with the Iron Fists is all appreciation and no perspective. It hopes to get by on a certain level of considered cool. For the most part, it does. In other instances, it's frustrating in its lack of revision.
Still, hats off to the fan who can find fellow geeks (especially those in important and powerful places) to help him realize his artistic aims. The Man with the Iron Fists isn't the first vanity project and it definitely won't be the last. It's merely RZA's love letter to the type of movies that inspired his entire musical career and approach. There's nothing new with a musician channeling his fetishes into a bold cinematic statement (True Stories, 200 Motels, Human Highway). Hopefully, RZA finds more projects to push his professional limits. The Man with the Iron Fists is a decent initial attempt. It argues for something far greater further on in the future.