Rapper-turned-filmmaker RZA writes, directs and stars as the titular hero of this passionate love letter to old school Chinese martial arts movies. It is widely known that the founder of Wu-Tang Clan is a huge fan and bona fide expert on Hong Kong and Chinese kung-fu Cinema, and he pours all that passion into this film. It was shot on location in China and features some all-star veterans, including Gordon Liu, Chan Koon Tai and Leung Ka Yan in minor roles. The film is “Presented by” Quentin Tarantino and produced by Eli Roth, and certainly captures some of that same anachronistic pop culture vibe. This is very much an outsider’s take on the genre, albeit one steeped in fanboy affection.
The story centres on Jungle Village, where a number of rival gangs converge, looking to get their hands on a stash of Imperial gold and seek territorial advantage over their rivals. Caught in the middle is a mysterious Blacksmith (RZA), who earns his keep furnishing the different clans with weapons, while looking for a way out before he gets sucked in too deep. There are plenty of familiar faces on screen, from Daniel Wu and Rick Yune, to Byron Mann and Cung Le, as well as beauties like Lucy Liu, Jamie Chung and Grace Huang, all of whom are dolled up to the nines, brandishing outlandish weaponry, and doing their level best to slice each other to bloody ribbons. Russell Crowe grabs the most attention, however, as much because of his involvement in a project like this as for his ridiculously larger-than-life performance.
The film’s biggest problem is that the script is weighed down by too many characters, often discernible only by their quirky names or even quirkier weapons, but who are otherwise minimally developed. The only character with any kind of notable backstory is the Blacksmith himself, but the information arrives very late in the proceedings and RZA fails to compel as a heroic leading man. As a result the whole film suffers.
That said, considering how baffling the project was right from the get-go, and that RZA got any kind of funding to even attempt this, it’s a triumph of sorts that the film has made it to the screen at all. There’s certainly fun to be had for the late-night chop-socky crowd, with some frenetic blood-spewing action set pieces littered throughout, but RZA’s inexperience as a writer, director and actor is only exacerbated when blown up onto the big screen. The good will of those surrounding him – all of whom are clearly having a blast – can only carry the project so far.
Truth be told The Man With The Iron Fists is a mess, and drags for long periods in between Corey Yuen’s entertainingly-staged bouts of fighting. It’s not nostalgic or authentic enough to be considered a successful throwback, in the way Django Unchained succeeds as being a legitimate spaghetti western homage, while not innovative enough as a martial arts film to be appreciated by true aficionados of the genre (like RZA himself, ironically). Sadly, the film will most likely fall through the cracks and disappear, being neither good nor bad enough to be remembered.