“The Man with the Iron Fists” exists in both an intersection of various cultures & aesthetics, as well as its own funky, far-off corner of cinema that is, for better or for worse, all its own. Perhaps more than any other movie this year, it is an auteur’s project — the helmer being the RZA (pronounced ‘rih-zuh’) — who wrote, directed, composed the music, and even plays the titular lead role of the iron-fisted man. It’s an undeniably bold undertaking, a $20 million passion project for the creative mastermind behind the most enduring (and my personal favorite) act from the ’90s East Coast hip-hop scene: namely, the Wu-Tang Clan.
RZA references this with a wink and nod, staging the opening sequence to his group’s ’93 classic “Shame on a N***a”. It’s a fusion of propulsive, old-school hip-hop and, get this, elaborately choreographed, very very bloody kung-fu combat. Have I sold you yet?
To a certain kind of crowd, “Iron Fists” is pure fan service. It’s a throwback to the kind of campy, overplotted, yet all-too-earnest genre/martial-arts fare that thrived in the 42nd Street New York grindhouse theaters where RZA came up, often skipping classes to go to double, if not triple features. Certain movies are made with paychecks in mind, career moves, bills to pay. “Iron Fists” is clearly an end-product that its creator has been working towards, in one way or another, for all his life. Although it’s not my ideal vision (more on that later), it’s certainly his and I cannot fault him for that in any way.
“The Man With The Iron Fists”, true to genre, is teeming with various clashing dynasties, freewheelers, and loyalties all criss-crossing and betraying each other. The plot concerns, in essence, a bunch of evil warriors aiming to tyrannize a 19th century Chinese village, and the people banding together to stop them. Chief among them are Lucy Liu as a charismatic brothel-owner, the aforementioned RZA playing a blacksmith, who after torture renders him armless, very literally gets iron fists wielded to his body, and Russell Crowe, who in the wildest, loosest role of his career, plays drunken desperado Jack Knife, aptly named for his weapon of choice. Recent roles in self-serious dreck like “Robin Hood” haven’t terribly flattered Crowe’s talents, so to see him playing a near-psychopathic bad-ass is a delight. But this is a cast that’s much more enjoyable when swapping punches with each other, rather than words — a testament to some thespians’ broken English, as well as the script, which equips dialogue about as subtle as a Sega Genesis video-game cutscene.
Not to say, of course, that I expected Quentin Tarantino-level dialogue, who curiously enough is officially credited for presenting the film and mentoring its helmer. It’s a much different beast, and a more visually oriented project than what we expect from QT, with creative choreography and elaborate set design embodying RZA’s trademark attention to detail. He’s a master stager, and the film is certainly well above the technical competence of most first-time filmmakers. Although he generally reserves them for the front & back ends of the film, his action sequences are bold and bloody, often approaching near-poetic fluidity.
RZA’s musical background lends much more attention to the soundtrack than would otherwise be held, and indeed, “Iron Fists”‘s soundtrack is a mini-slice of heaven for hip-hop nerds like myself. Established greats like RZA’s original Clan, Talib Kweli & Kanye West drop tracks, alongside strong upstarts like Danny Brown & Pusha T. Blues-rock heavyweights The Black Keys even kick in a great track, the film’s unofficial anthem “The Baddest Man Alive”. The songs run the gamut from tightly-wound, paranoid croaks to loose, syrup-soaked jams. Together, they comprise a soundtrack whose variety and quality nearly justifies the film’s existence, alone.
The characters, save Crowe’s Jack Knife, are largely disposable, and by the end, we aren’t left too emotionally affected one way or another. Such is not the point. “The Man with the Iron Fists” is an intricate, carefully considered toy — serving little more than brief entertainment, but admirable in how it reflects the mad machinations of its creator. B