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REVIEW: The Man with the Iron Fists [2012]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: November 2nd, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): RZA
Writer(s): RZA & Eli Roth / RZA (story)

“When it comes to money, things get funny”

Far from anything resembling a Kung Fu aficionado, I entered into RZA‘s directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists with a lesser of many evils mentality. The theatre was to be my safe haven while my car got its oil change and of the two or three flicks I hadn’t yet seen, the potential sideshow of Jungle Village seemed the best way to spend ninety minutes. The Tarantino seal of approval and co-writing credit to Eli Roth did little to temper my skepticism since they would do anything for a friend despite its quality, but if I kept expectations low I hoped I could at least have fun. To that end I was proven correct because despite the insanely convoluted plot and comically splattered CGI blood, I can’t say I was ever bored. But I can’t say I was completely satisfied either.

The story is about money and revenge as warring tribes ignore loyalties and decency to turn the volatile village into a hotbed of violence. An agreement is made with Gold Lion (Kuan Tai Chen), the leader of the Lion Clan, to watch over the emperor’s gold as it passes through. Greedy and power hungry, Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le) stage a coup to take control. Looking to keep the money for themselves, a bull’s eye is set and the Wolf Clan, the emperor’s guard, an unpredictable stranger named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), and Gold Lion’s pride and joy Zen Yi (Rick Yune) converge to stake their claim. And watching it all happen from a distance is local blacksmith Thaddeus Henry (RZA), hoping the weapons he forged for this battle would be his last before retiring to leave the massacres behind.

It’s a circus, plain and simple. Besides these aforementioned characters looking for their cut, a mysterious villain roams the street with poisonous daggers (Daniel Wu) and the brutish giant aptly coined Brass Body (Dave Bautista) is hired for added muscle by Silver. Wirework fights full of twirls and blades ensue as hotel restaurants and brothels are destroyed in their wake. Thaddeus does his best to ignore the carnage while paying off his girlfriend’s (Jamie Chung) debt to her mistress Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu); only stepping in once he sees Zen Yi about to meet his maker. Honor overcomes better judgment and the guilt of having crafted the weapons that killed the man’s father force him to intervene and take the first step on his road to becoming the titular man with iron fists.

How else can you defeat a brass behemoth unless you have some metal of your own to even the score? It’s an origin story of sorts for the blacksmith to show how he becomes a pillar of justice in a village that desperately needs it. The road is paved in pain as sides are chosen and new unforeseen adversaries enter the fray. Allegiances are made and broken as self-interest rules the day, but luckily for us it all blurs together with little need of separating the mass of raging flesh to follow the action. Good guys will be good, bad will be bad, and to the victor goes the spoils in rather simplistic fashion. As the body count mounts our main trio is left to pair off with sparring partners and place the pressure heroism entails solely on their shoulders.

Not having much of an education in the genre, I’m not sure whether the rampant silliness is intentional or not. Some of it obviously is—look no further than Mann’s hilariously wild performance—but stuff like the Gemini stance, a motorized revolving dagger, or chi’s ability to bind inanimate objects to flesh could merely have been poor choices and not homage. The naming conventions and costumes as far as manes of hair for the Lions and wolf heads for the Wolves are nice stylistic touches and Crowe’s rather prickly teddy bear with a homicidal streak is inspired. Heck, even Brass Body is pretty cool on paper whether the end result’s orchestration succeeds or not. I will say he looks better than the trailers, though.

Over-wrought performances then try to project too dour a mood as Liu and RZA’s stoicism ruins the fantastic playfulness of Mann and to a lesser extent Crowe. I’m not saying one choice was correct over the other, just that some consistency could have gone a long way towards understanding exactly what tone this former Wu-Tang Clan rapper had in mind. RZA actually does a decent job himself on the acting side; his expressive full body punches in the climatic fight good enough to warrant the inclusion of a flying eyeball in slomotion. If not for his decision to lazily use comic book partitions as transitions at the finish when the rest had been more or less conventional with a couple nice flourishes of movement, I’d say his directing was successful as well.

His future behind the camera remains to be seen until trying his hand with something a little less bombastic and without the need of professional specialists like stunt coordinator Corey Yuen. He was correct to use their safety net while cutting his teeth on set this time, though, to a polished result considering his lack of experience. The fact RZA is a Kung Fu expert definitely helps aesthetically with elaborate decorations and weapons galore, but what stuck out for me is the opening credit sequence. Combine it with the brilliant final ‘The End’ title card and you’re transported to an era of grainy film stock and gorgeous Chinese symbols. Maybe some film grain and noise like on his buddies’ Grindhouse could have helped visually too, but I won’t begrudge him wanting his first to be polished.


photography:
[1] (L to R) Brass Body (DAVID BAUTISTA) and the Blacksmith (RZA) star in “The Man With the Iron Fists”, an action-adventure inspired by kung-fu classics as interpreted by Quentin Tarantino’s longtime collaborators RZA and Eli Roth. Making his debut as a big-screen director and leading man, RZA–alongside a stellar international cast led by Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu–tells the epic story of warriors, assassins and a lone outsider hero in nineteenth-century China who must unite to destroy the clan traitor who would destroy them all. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] RUSSELL CROWE stars as Jack Knife in “The Man With the Iron Fists”, an action-adventure inspired by kung-fu classics as interpreted by Quentin Tarantino’s longtime collaborators RZA and Eli Roth. Making his debut as a big-screen director and leading man, RZA–alongside a stellar international cast led by Crowe and Lucy Liu–tells the epic story of warriors, assassins and a lone outsider hero in nineteenth-century China who must unite to destroy the clan traitor who would destroy them all. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] BYRON MANN stars as Silver Lion in “The Man With the Iron Fists”, an action-adventure inspired by kung-fu classics as interpreted by Quentin Tarantino’s longtime collaborators RZA and Eli Roth. Making his debut as a big-screen director and leading man, RZA–alongside a stellar international cast led by Crowe and Lucy Liu–tells the epic story of warriors, assassins and a lone outsider hero in nineteenth-century China who must unite to destroy the clan traitor who would destroy them all. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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