RZA’s directorial debut, The Man With The Iron Fists, shows a lot of love for the kung fu classics and martial arts movies which inspired it, but it doesn’t quite have that feel of exhilaration that they have.
In addition to the directing the movie, RZA also stars as Thaddeus, who is known to the inhabitants of Jungle Village as The Blacksmith. He spends his days making weapons for those who wish to fight one another to death. The Blacksmith isn’t proud of what he does, but it allows him to save money for him and the love of his life, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), so that they can escape their hellish existence in this small village and start a new life together.
However, into this village soon arrives a band of warriors, a number of assassins and a British soldier addicted to opium that are all on the hunt for a huge treasure of gold. From there the specifics of the story become hard to follow as we get introduced to a large number of antagonists who are played by mixed martial artist Cung Le and actor Byron Mann. Those two guys certainly show that they have the moves and they also sport some wicked hairdos.
But basically, those warriors played by Le and Mann have attained their powerful positions through acts of treachery, and that does not sit well with X-Blade (Rick Yune), whose father became one of their victims. Soon he teams up with The Blacksmith as well as Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) to defend the town against these warriors who seek to take what they want, regardless of the cost of human life.
Both RZA and Eli Roth have clearly spent a lot of time crafting the movie’s story and have created a mythology that has a lot of detail and history behind it. The problem is, we never get as emotionally invested in the characters as we should, and the action feels lacking as a result.
It’s a shame too because the action sequences, which were choreographed by the great Corey Yuen, are definitely fun to watch and have a lot of moments where you can’t help but say “OUCH!”
The acting also falters a bit as well. RZA spends too much time making The Blacksmith appear all too stoic, and as a result his more emotional moments never ring true. David Bautista proves to be an unstoppable badass as Brass Body, but his powerful body blows don’t quite make up for his lack of acting prowess. Neither of these guys are terrible, but their lackluster performances do affect the movie as a whole.
Others fare better though, like Lucy Liu, who is a reliable veteran of action and martial arts movies like these. As Madame Blossom, she exudes the same confidence and integrity her character of O-Ren Ishii had in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. Plus, she is always a lot of fun to watch in roles like this.
There’s also the great Chinese martial arts film actor Gordon Liu who plays The Abbott, and you can always count on him to give movies like this a good deal of integrity. Even Pam Grier shows up in a small scene as The Blacksmith’s mother, and it’s always great to see her in anything she does.
But the best performance in The Man With The Iron Fists belongs to Oscar winner Russell Crowe, who plays Jack Knife. After seeing him in so many serious movies like A Beautiful Mind, it is such a kick to see him let loose and go all crazy as this character.
Armed with a weapon that is a gun and a rotating knife that slices up his victims like beaters on an electric hand mixer, it is a gas to see him go off the wall. Clearly he relished the opportunity to do something completely different from what we have gotten so used to seeing him in, and he is endlessly entertaining throughout.
A lot of thought went into the story of this film, but it has too many characters to deal with and not enough time to develop them more fully. Movie fans will get a kick out of the terrific action sequences which have their fair share of bloody insanity, but they will come out of this film feeling like it could have been so much better.
The fact that The Man With The Iron Fists doesn’t work as well as it should is frustrating. You can imagine how much RZA, Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino (whose name is all over this film) love these kinds of martial arts extravaganzas, and you really want this to be on the same level as those classics.
It may have been too much to expect this to be like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but it could have passed as a B-movie version of Kill Bill. It doesn’t however, but here’s hoping that RZA makes more movies because he certainly has the passion for it, and things can only get better for him as a filmmaker from here.