Wu-Tang Clan front man RZA tries his hand at movie-making with The Man with the Iron Fists, an homage-sploitative throwback to the Chinese wuxia films that have long been an influence on his music. Co-written by Hostel director Eli Roth, and bearing the “presented by” seal of approval from Quentin Tarantino, the film tells the story of several warring martial arts clans in nineteenth century China, and the various colourful characters who find themselves caught up in the excitement. Unfortunately, like so many recent genre tributes, The Man with the Iron Fists is so busy attempting to replicate the films that inspired it that fails to have an identity of its own. On top of that, for a man who makes his living as a performer and a wordsmith, the writing and acting of this rapper turned filmmaker both leave a lot to be desired.
Set in beautiful “Jungle Village”, the story begins with the assassination of Golden Lion (Chen Kuan-tai; Iron Monkey), the leader of the Lion clan, by his traitorous lieutenant, Silver Lion (Byron Mann; Streetfighter). Vain and greedy, Silver Lion wages war with the other clans, and also plans to rob a convoy carrying a crate of Imperial gold. But the unrest also brings dangerous new faces to the village, including a supernaturally powerful warrior (WWE star David Bautista) and a mysterious, knife wielding Englishman (Russell Crowe; Robin Hood), the latter of whom takes up residence in the village brothel run by the business-savvy Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu; Kill Bill). Fighting also means the need for weapons, which the local blacksmith (RZA) is reluctantly coerced into designing. But things get even more hazardous with the arrival of Golden Lion’s son and protégé Zen-Yi (Rick Yune; Die Another Day) a.k.a. The X-Blade, who swears to seek vengeance against his father’s killers.
From the opening credits, RZA’s love of the Kung-Fu genre is obvious. Unfortunately, as we saw in the likes Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun, films born of slavish affection are often better left on the page; passion for camp and exploitation can make a great faux trailer, but rarely can it sustain the full length of feature. The Man with the Iron Fists suffers from the same problem that those films did, fluctuating haphazardly between satire, modernisation and painstaking imitating. But no matter the style, the execution inevitably feels forced. The dialogue is stilted and highly expositional, and although there’s a certainly novelty the first time you see a fight set to the tune of Wu-Tang’s “Shame on a Nigga”, RZA’s attempts to mash-up the East with the East-Coast work better in music than it does on the screen.
The performances are another big problem. Crowe and Liu muster some enthusiasm, although they’ve both been a lot better. Rick Yune, on the other hand, is just plain awful, as is Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch) as the blacksmith’s prostitute girlfriend (of all the female characters in the film, only one isn’t involved in the sex-trade – and although the girls get a chance to prove their fighting chops in the second half, the turnaround isn’t nearly enough to make up for such blatant sexism in the first). But the worst work in front of the camera comes from the man who’s also behind it; although RZA’s hands are made of iron, his performance – from toneless line delivery to his apparent chronic inability to muster a simple facial expression – is nothing if not wooden.
One area where he redeems himself – somewhat, anyway – is in the action. Although split screens and some very dodgy looking digital blood prove rather distracting, the show-downs are conceptually creative and generally well choreographed and edited. Sadly though, they’re not nearly good enough to make you forget the film’s single biggest problem: you just don’t care about the characters involved. RZA’s bland, Liu peddles flesh, Crowe is a misogynist and a psycho. Who exactly should win this fight?