The Man with the Iron Fists, 2012.
Directed by RZA.
Starring RZA, Russell Crowe, Lucy Lui, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, Byron Mann, Pam Grier and Dave Bautista.
In feudal China, a treasure trove of gold leads various clans into war. In the middle of it all is a blacksmith, who must protect his love, his village and avenge the wrongs done to him by the Lion clan.
RZA, who in movie terms seems to have merely been in the background (equally pleasant surprises to see he was in Funny People and Repo Men), has written, directed and starred in a feature film all his own, paying homage to martial arts films throughout. Well, I say all his own. Quentin Tarantino has reportedly had a lot of influence, playing teacher to RZA’s student, and The Man with the Iron Fists is very much a movie you could see Tarantino making. Except, unfortunately, without the snappy dialogue you’d be used to. The writing’s decent. Every character has their ‘arc’, so to speak, but it feels more episodic than the typical film. Which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it works for the type of film this is.
In a similar way to the Grindhouse double feature, Iron Fists is paying homage to a genre that is perhaps not that well known by the majority of people. But it is, importantly, entertaining all on its own. Getting all the references isn’t essential. Also like Grindhouse, unfortunately, there are the odd little elements to the film that won’t hit home unless you’re an ardent fan of kung-fu movies. Any ironic subtext is underplayed, if it’s there at all. More about that later though.
The narrative shoots from place to place, person to person. There’s the Blacksmith (RZA), who is instructed under threat of death to construct weapons for the various clans that operate nearby. And one of these is the Lion Clan, which has recently fallen into turmoil, their leader unwilling to see peace in the land. Meanwhile, a travelling warrior journeys to the village to set things right and claim what’s his. Oh, also Russell Crowe shows up at Lucy Lui’s house full of prostitutes for some unknown business (as well as some… ‘biznis’, ifyouknowwhatI’msayin’).
It’s the multiple narratives that, for the most part, work for the movie. Without focusing too much on one person, things can be kept light, almost kitschy (but not worthless, as Wikipedia has just told me about the definition of that word). That means the over the top moments are humorous and, for better or worse, you never get emotionally drawn in to any character’s story. Also of note is the lack of any one central character. While he appears to be the centre of everything, what with his voiceover, this is not strictly the Blacksmith’s story.
A small aside concerning the Blacksmith’s narration. I don’t know if it was just me, but RZA’s moody (read: mumbled) delivery of exposition through voiceover was frankly unintelligible at times (though this may have been related to being sat in the middle of the worst audience I’ve had the joy of experiencing).
Perhaps due to the setting up of these separate stories, the pacing in the first half is slow almost to the point of boredom, but is rescued quickly when events and characters start converging. This culminates in a fantastic series of fight scenes, cross cutting between the various characters as they go through their own personal battles. The fight choreography and wirework is excellent throughout, helping to inject the idea of a fantastical version of feudal China. No explanation is needed as to why people can seem to fly, or why in fact one character’s body can turn into brass (his parents fortunately named him Brass, and his family name was Body which also helped).
The fight scenes are so well put together, with fantastic direction. I was drawn in so much I even forgot about the army with the Gatling guns. Unfortunately, the excitement that is there as the fight scenes play out quickly dissipates, the film as a whole being a little forgettable.
Performances are of differing levels throughout. RZA himself is competent enough, but nothing suggests he has leading man in his future. Russell Crowe seems game for comedy and violence in equal measure, while Lucy Lui brings across the idea of deadly Madame so easily I think she could do so in her sleep. There are slight echoes of Tarantino’s Kill Bill in her manner.
Silver Lion (Byron Mann) is an unusual performance. It’s almost as if they were going to play it for laughs throughout, with hammy and cheesy performances in equal measure, until the last minute. Except no one told Mann. He does well, but it’d be better if the film were trying for an ironic ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ sort of thing. This is also suggested by the names. Would a film be completely serious if the names of father and sons were Gold, Silver and Bronze Lion? Everyone else is good, but there aren’t any standouts apart from the heavy hitters, who aren’t really stretched past anything they’ve done before.
Fortunately, production values don’t fall into the trap of trying for the ‘so bad it’s good’. Everything looks good, like it should. From the opening titles reflecting the genre this film comes from, to the contemporary style adopted within the confines of the kung-fu movie (or, at least, from what I know of the kung-fu genre). Effects, including the ones involved in creating Brass Body, thankfully all work.
The best way I can think of to sum this film up is by saying it’s a great debut for RZA as a director. Hopefully he creates more behind the camera (and all indications seem to say he will, having signed on to at least two other projects). I am also forced to wonder how much influence the likes of Tarantino and Eli Roth had on the film. Hopefully RZA grows into more than can be found here, but I have the feeling it’s going to be just a matter of time before he matures as a director. So far, with Iron Fists, he’s at least got a foothold.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★