Unleashed in the East: Kung-Fu Meets Grindhouse in RZA’s The Man With The Iron Fists

The invincible Brass Body (Dave Bautista, left) fights 'The Man with the Iron Fists' (RZA, right).

It’s no secret that Django Unchained mastermind Quentin Tarantino is an avid fan of all things kung-fu, martial arts, and grindhouse. Therefore it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that he would give his name to a movie called The Man With The Iron Fists co-written by his protégé Eli Roth, who once created Hostel and starred in Quentin Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds. The bigger zinger, however, is the man at the helm of The Man With The Iron Fists: RZA, former member of the legendary hip-hop outfit Wu-Tang Clan and now a first-time director. The question is how good of a show he puts up in his debut.

China in the 19th century: In the rather unsafe Jungle Village, the mysterious swashbuckling Englishman Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) parks himself in the classy brothel of Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu) to indulge himself in wine and women. His presence, however, only catalyzes the ongoing war between rival clans who want to force the Afro-American blacksmith (RZA) to deliver his best weapons to their respective fighters. When they chop off both of the artisan’s arms, Jack nourishes him back into shape and has two iron fists cast for him. Siding with the English adventurer and Zen Yi (Rick Yune), the favorite son of the murdered clan leader Gold Lion, the blacksmith uses these new weapons to seek vengeance on his tormentors and the invincible nemesis Brass Body (Dave Bautista).

For his debut as a director, RZA has managed to assemble a pretty impressive cast. Other than the rapper himself as the blacksmith, The Man With The Iron Fists boasts itself with Oscar winner Russell Crowe, former James Bond villain Rick Yune, erstwhile Charlie’s Angel and Kill Bill antagonist Lucy Liu, as well as Sucker Punch and The Hangover II darling Jamie Chung. Wrestling star Dave Bautista, famous martial artist Cung Le, Cloud Atlas actress Zhu Zhu, Byron Mann, Daniel Wu, and renowned Kung-Fu monk Gordon Liu are also in the fold. The notable collection obviously helps the film’s cause, but it can’t hide the fact that The Man With The Iron Fists has a number of serious flaws.

Why the language changes from English to Mandarin on several occasions that don’t necessarily make sense, for instance, is beyond comprehension. It seems like a downright arbitrary decision, because the same shift doesn’t happen in other scenes in which it would have been a lot more logical to do just that. In fact, the wisest choice probably would have been to shoot the whole movie in Chinese and then have it subtitled. Then again, The Man With The Iron Fists doesn’t even attempt to take itself all too seriously – and for the most part, that’s a good thing. Of course, the movie models itself after the iconic Kill Bill double dip by Quentin Tarantino, but it never gets to the same level as those two modern classics.

You can also argue about the soundtrack of The Man With The Iron Fists. Does the combination of the feudal China as a setting and hip-hop tracks work? RZA himself isn’t the first one to try the mix of Eastern elements and rap music. Indie ace Jim Jarmusch already had a go at that mélange in Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai in the late 1990s – with some of the tracks courtesy of RZA and his Wu-Tang buddies. In The Man With The Iron Fists, the blend sometimes works; other times it doesn’t. The beginning, in particular, bodes ill. Will the movie be nothing but neck-breaking gore accompanied by hip-hop?

Fortunately, the film soon does away with these concerns and steers into the territory of classic kung-fu flicks, albeit of the cheaper type. It has likely been designed as homage of sorts to these works. To a certain degree, Jungle Village reminds us of the setting in the Akira Kurosawa masterpiece Yojimbo, with all the rival clans constantly scheming and mercilessly trying to outdo each other. Treachery and bloodshed are daily business in this town, only that none of the ‘good’ characters in The Man With The Iron Fists can or wants to play these brutal groups against one another the way Kurosawa’s bodyguard does.

What RZA certainly needs to ask himself is why exactly he picked himself to play the role of the hero. Wouldn’t Rick Yune’s Zen Yi (a.k.a. X-Blade) have been a much better choice as angel of vengeance? After all, it’s the betrayal and murder of his father Gold Lion that triggers the narrative. Also, the rapper probably isn’t leading man material anyway, or he has simply tried to wear one hat too many as the movie’s director, co-screenwriter, and main actor. Granted, his blacksmith Thaddeus has his moments, but at times he appears somewhat dull and uninspired as well and can’t hold a jock compared to some of the finer thesps he recruited for The Man With The Iron Fists.

Another downside is that the dialogs in the movie are quite cheesy here and there and occasionally border on being downright ridiculous. Even though RZA can be a masterful wordsmith in his hip-hop endeavors, his first time at the helm of a feature film shows that he doesn’t seem to be quite on that same level as a screenwriter yet. Maybe this has been a conscious artistic decision – who knows. Yet you can’t help but wonder whether a better script might not have done miracles for The Man With The Iron Fists. The story in itself is actually quite intriguing if you like classic kung-fu movies.

It’s safe to say that opinions on RZA’s directorial debut have been and will remain divided, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. A little controversy here and there has probably never hurt a film. Quentin Tarantino has usually benefited from such incidents, and this excursion as a producer fits right in with the other Grindhouse stories created by him and fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez such as Death Proof, Planet Terror, and Machete. Some viewers truly love these B-movies by design, while others hate their guts. Depending on your expectations, The Man With The Iron Fists will arguably either be a flawed but rather enjoyable, even fun experience or a total disaster. There might not be too much of a middle ground.

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