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The screenplay for “The Man With the Iron Fists” was co-written by RZA; the multi-faceted, Grammy-winning hip-hop musician, producer and leader of the band Wu-Tang Clan also directed the film in his debut effort.
Co-writer Eli Roth directed the “Hostel” horror films, co-wrote “Cabin Fever” and costarred in the Quentin Tarantino-directed “Inglourious Basterds” and acted in “Grindhouse.” RZA (whose real name is Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) worked on the music for Mr. Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”; Mr. Tarantino introduces “Iron Fists.” This film grew to some degree from the association of the two artists. RZA also worked extensively with Russell Crowe in “American Gangster.”
This movie, filmed in China, with a host of Chinese technicians, combines aspects of martial arts films, particularly of the wuxia [hero] variety of the ’60s and ’70s, usually set in old China with lots of violent sword play, chivalry and dishonor, and American cowboy films. The results are odd. It is surprisingly difficult to say whether “The Man With the Iron Fists” is a work of absurd genius, an outright spoof, or a pretty bad movie.
Viewers who enjoy martial arts movies will be entertained by the tongue-in-cheek (sometimes blade-in-cheek) references to the elements of the genre. The film contains, for example, the lieutenant (Silver Lion, played by Byron Mann) who overthrows the rightful clan chief (Gold Lion, Chinese martial arts film star Chen Kuan-tai) because “it is his time”; the son (Rick Yune as Zen-Yi), who must avenge the chief; the tragic couple (RZA as the blacksmith Thaddeus and Jamie Chung as Lady Silk); and the beleaguered village (“Jungle Village”) that requires protection and so on.
While some of the fight scenes are a pleasure to watch, overall they are uneven, possibly because of the movie’s apparent need to stab, kick, punch, chop, bludgeon, shoot, and otherwise maim as many characters as it can to produce the requisite gallons of blood and dead bodies, rather than focus on the grace and beauty often present in the Asian martial arts.
There is also some sex, but it is by far under-represented.
American cowboy movie motifs are also plentiful in “Iron Fists”: the brothel madam (Lucy Liu) with a heart of gold and surprising strength; the beautiful prostitute who yearns to be faithful to her man; the stranger, a gunslinger from “out of town” (Russell Crowe). The Pink Blossom brothel looks like a great pink saloon.
RZA seems to embrace his character of man of mystery and tragic hero wholeheartedly, if quietly. Ms. Liu and Mr. Crowe appear to be having a wonderful time going right over the top with their characters. With lines like, “Be careful, gentlemen. … Not with the gold; with your jewels” (Lucy Liu), and “I always take a gun to a knife fight. [a reversal on the pop culture truism, ‘Never bring a knife to a gunfight’]… Chin-chin” (Russell Crowe), one can hardly blame them.
When Russell Crowe as Jack Knife (really) makes his first appearance, he is wearing something like the serape Clint Eastwood wore in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” – except that Mr. Crowe’s is brocade.
The story in brief: The Gemini clan is transporting the government gold to Jungle Village where it is to be taken up by the big-haired Lion Clan, who are to protect it the rest of the way to its destination. The Wolf Clan appears briefly in appealing fuzzy wolf outfits, but is decimated (apparently the clan’s sole goal in the movie) by the Lion Clan, now under the leadership of the supercilious Silver Lion. The latter wants war and wants the gold. He knows the son of Gold Lion is coming to avenge his father, so he hires Tiger Clan man Brass Body, played by 6-foot-6, 290-pound wrestler David Bautista, who must have the world’s most impressive trapezii. His character turns to metal when anything strikes him, making him virtually invulnerable. The blacksmith, also the narrator for much of the film, makes fantastic weapons, despite his understanding of Buddhist principles (some monks took him in after rescuing him from a shipwreck) and his own judgment, to pay for his lover’s release from the brothel.
Eventually the four outsiders – the blacksmith, Jack Knife, Zen-Yi, and Madam Blossom – must work together to right the wrongs done by Silver Lion and save the village and its numerous incredibly cute children.
Pam Grier (“Foxy Brown”) plays a cameo as the mother of Thaddeus, the blacksmith, in flashback. Also on hand is Osric Chau, TV’s Kevin Tran, prophet of the Lord on Supernatural, which may make this movie a go-see for fans of that cult TV show.
RZA and composer Howard Drossin, who had worked together before, put the music together. Songs by Wu-Tang Clan, The Black Keys, My Chemical Romance and Chinese singer Sally Yeh are included. The soundtrack is enjoyable and exciting, bumping up the quality of the film a couple of notches. Selections and composition are in close attendance to the film’s events and in at least one scene, the action – a fighting sequence – appears to be set to the music rather than the other way around, an interesting effect.
All in all, the movie is entertaining – martial-arts-plus, Tarantino-violent and cowboy-movie-bawdy as it is – for a range of viewers. (They know who they are.) Others who still have a yen to know who “the man with the iron fists” turns out to be may wish to find out on video.
Runs 1hr., 36 min. Rated R