Movie Review – The Man With the Iron Fists (2012)
Actor/Director/Writer/Composer RZA attempts to craft a loving homage to the chop-socky martial arts films of the late 1960s-early 1970s yet despite the array of talent involved the end product is a near absolute mess with humour that constantly misfires, zombie-like acting and miserably filmed action sequences. The plot is totally inconsequential but that is to be expected yet every attempt made to imbue the film with edgy coolness ends up instead grating to the point of abject pain so much so that many will feel compelled to either walk out of the cinema or ram their thumbs with disdain into their eye-sockets.
The Man With The Iron Fists presents a rather convoluted story of political machinations inside one clan where subordinates rise up to kill their leader, take control and summarily set out to cut a path of mayhem and plunder throughout a local village aptly named Jungle set in some remote location in Ancient China. What their end game is no one really knows except that it allows the film to present a plethora of action sequences featuring actors and actresses flying around via tons of wirework. Fans who wish to see something more grounded are going to be in a world of disappointment as individuals can easily break the laws of physics while swooping across the air with ease.
In such a wild environment lies our nameless hero merely called Blacksmith played by RZA. The movie explains that he managed to escape being a slave in America only to have his ship wrecked in a storm, his body washing up by chance on the other side of the Pacific Ocean in mainland China. Saved by monks he adopts their teachings yet for some inexplicable reason he ends up becoming a weapon blacksmith of repute so much so that everyone comes to him whenever they have exotic weapons to be made. Nevertheless, the Blacksmith only goes about his business as his wish is to save enough money to buy the freedom of his love, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), who is sadly a prostitute under the employ of Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu)
To complicate matters, it is revealed that a shipment of gold is soon to traverse the town and that the now-violent gang intends to hijack it. In the meantime, a boozy English man named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) shows up looking for some quick harem action although his shifty demeanor portends a deeper agenda.
The Man With the Iron Fists tries hard to be cool in the vein of Quentin Tarantino movies yet it completely misses the point entirely with its flat direction and lack of funny bone. Ridiculousness needs to be met with a kind of lighthearted wink from a director that understands that the material is meant to be overly flamboyant but instead of allowing the silliness to permeate the entire movie director/writer RZA instead crafts a film that feels as if it is far too serious. His primary means of attempting to energize the film comes from his use of music, specifically the hard rapping soundtrack that makes the movie feel more like it belongs in a gangland narrative set in the inner ghetto of New York rather than rural China. In theory while there is nothing wrong with trying to meld modern musical cues with the narrative RZA lacks directorial muscle in which to connect the two in meaningful ways. It is not as if RZA points his camera in the wrong direction or makes incomprehensible shot compositions but rather it is so often mundane and static that it results in a near lifeless film.
Action sequences don’t seem to be edited to create tension and worse still, RZA saddles the narrative with massive inconsistencies such as the antagonist who can best many martial artists but who suddenly forgets how to fight in the film’s climax. Characters and key plot points appear out of the blue without explanation and just as quickly are resolved often with laughable results.
In order to succeed in creating a knowingly silly movie every actor and filmmaker needs to be aware of the extreme cheesiness of the situation and act accordingly to meet the overblown narrative. However, performances are emotionally all over the map with some seemingly thinking they are in a serious production of MacBeth while others attempt to outdo William Shatner with over-emphasized facial contortions. Only good old Russell Crowe seems to understand the absurdity of the situation and turns in a hammy performance that works for his rotund character while on the other end of the spectrum lies Byron Mann as the primary antagonist Silver Lion who surely must be aiming to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for most exaggerated eyebrow furors and bug-eyed expressions. His villain is neither physically nor emotionally threatening and the very sight of him preening through the street with wild hair and John Lennon rounded lens glasses is enough to make one gag.
Supporting cast members like Lucy Liu turn in some truly uninspired work with poor Liu doing her best Dragon Lady impression but sadly it comes nowhere close to the icy sharpness of her character in Kill Bill. Rick Yune as one of the noble heroes looks as if he had just walked in from his voice over narration sessions on the video game Sleeping Dogs as he saunters on screen more like an undercover cop rather than martial arts bad-ass. Still, the most cringe-worthy aspect of the movie belongs to the gaggle of shapely sexy Chinese women working the brothel who spend the entire film in a near state of undress while excessively moaning in coitus even though Russell Crowe’s character is feeling nowhere close to their erogenous zones. Count Jamie Chung in this group as she demurely bats her eyelashes and strikes seductive poses while showing ample leg yet that’s the extent of her acting abilities. To be fair to her, the script gives her nothing to do but show skin making one wonder just why she and her agent thought this would be a good role to further her career.
This is the type of movie which attempts to titillate your senses either through overt sexuality or through excessive gore yet whenever these scenes occur the result is rarely on the mark. Instead of feeling aroused by Chinese women writhing in bed or shocked by someone having their arms mercilessly chopped off the feeling is one of total indifference as RZA has no discernible clue as to how to truly bring out the underlying emotion of the particular scene. Thus it results in a graphic image that has no oomph or worse, merely accentuates the awful dialogue such as the scene which Russell Crowe must have forced himself not to laugh when he holds what looks like a giant metallic phallus and goads his prostitutes into discovering which one of them is not Catholic.
The Man With the Iron Fists feels very much like a massive vanity project for RZA who is wearing far too many hats for him to be successful in any capacity. He not only makes for an exceedingly bland and charmless lead character but as director he is only functional at best. Often times one gets the impression that RZA is basically making it up as he goes along as the film is rarely technically coherent as scenes clearly do not fluidly match. For instance, the movie opens with perhaps its best foot forward with a credit sequence adorned with yellow-coloured text and a soundtrack that clearly pays homage to 1970s martial arts flicks. Yet from there RZA settles into a rather mundane editing style that rarely excites nor even attempts to show originality when all of a sudden in the last act he starts chopping up the frame into comic book panes to seemingly emphasize different locations. It is jarring and makes little sense as the shots he chooses to emphasize don’t need them at all. When a character gets his chain weapon stuck in a massive gear it is pointless to cut into panes with one of them showing a close-up of the gear as everyone and their mother can see it for themselves. We don’t need extra emphasis on it to realize the chain is stuck and what inevitably will happen. Then again, fans of current Hong Kong cinema will surely have a field day laughing themselves silly when they realize that this is actor Daniel Wu doing his worst over-the-top impression of a maniacal hitman seen in decades.
It certainly reminds me of my MBA studies, specifically the segment that dealt with being a good manager. In short, the best managers are not necessarily those who attempt to do everything or micromanage every possible facet but rather those who can identify the subject matter experts and then motivate them to higher goals. Frankly speaking, RZA tries to do too much and it would have aided the film if he had just sat back and concentrated on his masteries rather than attempt to do every job imaginable. Instead, he gives himself the key role as not only protagonist but almost omniscient narrator but ends up mumbling his lines more often than not as if channeling a latter day inebriated Marlon Brando. Having a monotone dry delivery doesn’t help either especially combined with his muttering style and instead of crafting one of those stereotypical bad-ass characters who speak little while carrying a big stick ends up lulling viewers to sleep.
The Man With the Iron Fists is one of those projects that must have sounded viable on paper. With the inclusion of cameos from famous martial artists of that era as well as big named actors like Russell Crowe it makes it all the more disappointing that the final product is so limp and undercooked. If there is to be a next time hopefully RZA will get the memo and understand he needs to play to his strengths and allow others to take control of the reins where they are needed. I hear Quentin Tarantino is available to direct.
* out of ****
2012, USA, 95 Minutes, R, Universal Pictures/Arcade Pictures/Iron Fists
Directed by RZA
Story by RZA
Screenplay by RZA & Eli Roth
Produced by Marc Abraham, Eric Newman, Eli Roth
Executive Producer Thomas A. Bliss, Tom Karnowski, Kristel Laiblin
Original Music by Howard Drossin
Cinematography by Chi Ying Chan
Rick Yune: Zen Yi, The X-Blade
Russell Crowe: Jack Knife
Lucy Liu: Madam Blossom
Dave Bautista: Brass Body
Jamie Chung: Lady Silk
Cung Le: Bronze Lion
Byron Mann: Silver Lion
Daniel Wu: Poison Dagger
Zhu Zhu: Chi Chi
Gordon Liu: Abbott
Andrew Ng: Senior Monk
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