A movie like The Man With The Iron Fists, with the tagline of “They put the F.U. in Kung Fu,” can really go either way. While such a tagline promises some cool fight scenes and much bad-assery, do the goods stop there? Also, can RZA from The Wu-Tang Clan direct? Hell yes, RZA can direct! While the film does lag at around the three-quarter mark, not only are its fight scenes awesome and bloody, but they are creatively shot and have great cinematography. This, in combine with a gleefully clever and referential script co-written by RZA and Eli Roth, make for a fun film that fits nicely within the film’s “presentor,” Quentin Tarantino’s, postmodernist pantheon. After all, there’s even a cameo from Pam Grier.
The film tells many stories, with all converging as various parties become involved in the seizure of the governor’s gold in the fictional town of Jungle Village in 19th Century China. Also one of the film’s main actors, RZA is the Blacksmith who forges high-quality weaponry for Jungle City’s various vicious gangs. Because, at the beginning of the film anyway, Blacksmith is able to provide a fairly omniscient narration as he is privy to all of the gang’s violent activities. Blacksmith is in love with the beautiful prostitute, Silk (Jamie Chung), who lives in The Pink Blossom brothel, run by the fiercely independent Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). They are trying to save up enough money to blow town together, but Blacksmith is sidelined after the leader of the Lion Gang, Golden Lion (Kuan Tai Chen), is killed by his own as he is protecting the governor’s gold. Blacksmith must make weapons for the gangs as this overthrow by Silver Lion (Byron Mann) sets off a gang war as gangs fight to the death for ownership of the prized gold.
Blacksmith eventually joins forces with Gold Lion’s son Zen Yi, “The X-Blade” (Rick Yune), so named because of his suit of knives, and the lusty British emissary Jack Knife (Russell Crowe, in a wonderfully cheeky performance) as they try to avenge Golden Lion’s death and get the gold back to it’s rightful owners. A complication occurs when Blacksmith is captured by Silver Lion’s men and the seemingly indestructible Brass Body (David Bautista), so named because his body turns to brass when pummeled, cuts off Blacksmith’s arms. With Jack Knife’s aid, Blacksmith is resurrected, as he fashions “iron fists” that he controls is his innate “chi,” becoming the film’s eponymous hero.
Many fight scenes occur between the beginning and end of the film, and most are pretty spectacular. Arms are pulled out of the socket, people are cut in half, heads are kicked off bodies, necks are stabbed with shoe knives – the creative kills here are plenty. Borrowing from his mentor Tarantino, RZA combines a lot of different styles when shooting the fight scenes, running the gamut from black and white cinematography (accented by red blood), slo-mo action shots, even shooting a scene in a hall of mirrors. Perhaps the standout fight scene occurs toward the end of the film, as the prostitutes led by Madam Blossom, morph into the Black Widow gang and face off against the Lion Gang. One by one, the prostitutes seduce the gang members and stab them in the neck, subsequently tangling the survivors in web-like cloths and kicking much ass. This scene looks beautiful, also, with its vibrant pink background and shocks of color.
Performance-wise, the real standout here is Russell Crowe as Jack Knife. Hamming it up throughout, Crowe chews the hell out of the scenery as a robust man who bangs four prostitutes at a time, slices men named Crazy Hippo in half with his giant knife, and adds more butter to his dinners than Paula Deen would. Usually playing more slow-burn roles, Crowe really brings it in here in this departure of a role and makes you wish that he was in every scene. While almost playing a nicer version of her role in Kill Bill: Volume One, Lucy Liu also delivers in her sexualized, alpha female performance – she also excels at the fight scenes. RZA is somewhat lacking as an actor – he was probably better riffing off Bill Murray in Coffee and Cigarettes – but he’s just fine in this, really. The other actors act in an exaggerated fashion, as in real Kung Fu films, and that works here also.
The film does start to lose momentum around the three-quarter mark when we learn Blacksmith’s backstory and the action dies down, but picks it up in a big way at the end. Blacksmith’s past history as an escaped slave who landed in China grounds the film in history, which is almost at its detriment, since everything else about the film defies time and place. Nevertheless, The Man With The Iron Fists ultimately accomplishes what it set out to do, which was to “put the F.U. in Kung Fu,” to recreate a classic Kung Fu film and imbue it with gangsta swagger and kick ass action scenes. More importantly, as a filmmaker, RZA proves that he “ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit,” as he goes above and beyond expectations with his stylistic choices.
The Upside: Russell Crowe knocks it out of the ballpark as the awesomely named Jack Knife. Also, the fight scenes deliver in a big way.
The Downside: The film has a brief repose toward the end and would be somewhat better if it completely existed outside history.
On the side: In development, Quentin Tarantino and RZA had intentions of a crossover with the upcoming Django Unchained, but apparently RZA couldn’t make it work. Oh well!