Starring RZA, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, David Bautista, Jamie Chung,Byron Mann, Cung Le, Daniel Wu, Gordon Liu, Chen Tai Kuan, Leung Kar Yan (Beardy), Grace Huang, Andrew Lin, Dennis Chan, Pam Grier
Fight Choreography by Corey Yuen
Directed by RZA
The Wu Tang Clan is without a doubt one of the best hip hop groups of all time, basing their music on their love of kung fu films, and even their names professed their love for the genre, all taken from kung-fu films: RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB), Method Man, Raekwon, Masta Killah, and U-God. The 36 Chambers, of course taken from Gordon Liu’s 36 Chambers of Shaolin, is considered one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, and even some of their music videos show off Shaw Brothers inspired kung fu fight scenes. So of course when word came that RZA was making his own kung-fu film excitement spread among his fans due to his love and pedigree. With an assortment of current and old school stars, we now have The Man With The Iron Fists.
The film follows the exploits of three heroes: Blacksmith (RZA), an escaped slave that came to the small town of Jungle Village in China after his ship crashed, and becomes a renowned weaponsmith, who hopes to make enough money to buy prostitute Lady Silk (Chung) whom he is in love with from Madame Blossom, who runs one of the best whore houses in China.
The second hero is Jack Knife (Crowe), a vulgar British man who arrives to Jungle Village, waiting on a shipment of gold to arrive sent from the Emperor.
The third hero is Zen Yi (Yune), son of Gold Lion (Chen), who is the head of the Lion Clan, who comes to Jungle Village to avenge the murder of his father at the hands of his lieutenants Bronze Lion (Le) and Silver Lion (Mann) and Poison Dagger (Wu).
Jungle Village is soon overrun with men who arrive to attempt to steal the gold shipment when it arrives, and the Lion Clan succeed in doing so, killing the Gemini Clan who had been sent to protect the convoy. The Lion Clan is also joined by Brass Body (Bautista), a man who can actually turn his skin into actual brass, so weapons have little effect on him. The Emperor, enraged at the theft, sends his soldiers with a new weapon from America: The gatling gun, with order to raze the village to the ground if the villagers don’t turn the gold over to the soldiers. Now Blacksmith, Jack Knife and Zen Yi must enter the Blossom and face the Lion Clan, the prostitutes who are far more deadly than they seem, and a metal man in an attempt to get their revenge and save the town at the same time…
A football analogy may best describe this film: That of a wide receiver jumping up in the endzone covered by two cornerbacks and makes a spectacular catch only to have the ball slip through his fingers just as he’s touching down. This film has a lot of problems, but also has quite a few things that the RZA did do really well. The cast was well chosen with the exception of one cast member. Russell Crowe was actually really good as the crude, rude Jack Knife (the character was modeled after the late ODB), Lucy Lui also does a fine job as Madame Blossom, bringing a lot of personality and deadly beauty to the role. Cung Le is also very good as baddie Bronze Lion, and the list of supporting characters is just awesome: you have the great Gordon Lui, Beardy, and Chen Tai Kuan all looking great to see on screen again. Special recognition to Grace Huang and Andrew Lin as the Gemini Twins. They had a short amount of screen time but were two of the most interesting characters in the film, that I really wanted to see more of, and seeing Dennis Chan (Kick boxer) and Pam Grier rounds things off nicely. Daniel Wu was miscast as the main villain as Daniel doesn’t know much in the way of martial arts and it shows, but he can look menacing. I wish they had gotten someone like a Yuen Biao or Lo Meng or hell, why not Wang Lung Wei to play his part. Rick Yune does fine job with the action but his acting is very one-note, but of all the cast members, one sticks out as the worst, and it brings the film down a lot.
That would be the RZA himself.
He’s really not very good as an actor, and he’s not a martial artist, and that is a bad combination (he did use Marrese Crump as his martial arts stuntman, which causes problems of its own) . For his character to work he had to be good at one or the other. As the film goes on that becomes a problem as he simple can’t pull off the dramatic scenes. This is a role that should’ve gone to a Michael Jai White or Wesley Snipes, men who are good at both acting and martial arts. The RZA gets so many things right, but this one piece of hubris brings everything down as he can’t carry the film in his scenes.
The directing by the RZA is decent, and the production values are top notch, and the music is absolutely fantastic, featuring the Wu Tang Clan at its best, and really fits with the look of the film (showing once and for all that yes, hip hop music in a martial arts film can work if done correctly). The first 30 minutes of the film is absolute top notch, from the old school opening credits to the first fights, but after that the story settles down and becomes a been-there-seen-that affair as nothing new is brought to the table, except gore on the level of Story of Ricky, so this film is not for the squeamish. The climactic fights at the end of the film for the three protagonists is resolved so simply it brings down the level of threat the villains ever had to begin with. The camera work is well done, but another culprit rears its ugly head, one common to American action films: editing, but I’ll get to that as part of my next problem with the film.
That would be the fight choreography by Corey Yuen. Tons of unnecessary wirework, and dammit Corey goes slumming again. I thought Romeo Must Die would be his low point, but he manages to nearly hit that point again. The fight scenes are not very well done. There is no complexity to the choreography, no grace, even for those who know martial arts. This is the biggest sin this film commits. The editing does nothing to help, as it is editing in typical American MTV style quick cuts and extreme close-ups to the point where you can’t see where the hell anyone is at in relation to each other. It is also here that the RZA’s camera work (or that of the 2nd unit director if there was one) really let the film down, as they don’t know how to shoot or follow action very well. This may be due to the fact that things had to be edited to appear as if RZA knew martial arts and to hide his stunt man. If Corey Yuen directed these scenes, then shame on him. Either way this wouldn’t have passed mustard in a Hong Kong production.
I did love the Shaw Brothers-inspired closing credits, though.
Kiai-Kick’s Grade: 6
The Man With The Iron Fists falls short of greatness, but isn’t a terrible movie, and fun may be had if you see it at matinee prices. The RZA’s heart is in the right place, but in the end it’s just an American film pretending to be a Shaw Brothers film.