Who doesn’t love a good kung-fu movie? “Good” being the operative word here, and unfortunately, The Man with the Iron Fists doesn’t exactly qualify. It’s an interesting experiment, blending old and new styles together in an homage that’s not quite an homage, but ultimately it’s far too cluttered and doesn’t really work in the end.
The film is from rapper-turned-actor-turned-director RZA, a prodigy of Quentin Tarantino like his co-writer here, Eli Roth. But like Roth, though their films have certain similarities to Tarantino’s, the level of quality just isn’t on par with this work. That’s to be expected given his talent, but with Iron Fists, it feels like wasted potential.
The setting is China, 1800-something. A colorful cast of characters assembles when the local governor needs to transport a enormous pile of gold across the countryside. Various parties from local gangs to international bounty hunters swoop in to try and rob it, and their paths cross in gruesome and violent ways.
Tenchu: Hard Mode
Content to sit back and sell arms to both sides is local blacksmith (RZA), only known as Blacksmith in the film. He minds his own business, watching rival gangs duke it out while trying to earn enough cash to buy his lady love (Jamie Chung) her freedom from the brothel in which she works.
Trouble brews when a lieutenant in a local gang, the Lions, assassinates their leader, the upright Golden Lion. Silver Lion, his betrayer, is not nearly as purehearted, and immediately his gang’s mission changes from protecting the gold to stealing it. Unfortunately for him, he has to deal with the late Lion’s son, Zen Yi, The X-Blade, which is not in fact the name of a Saturday morning cartoon on Nickelodeon.
The third pillar of the story is the mysterious Jack Knife (yep) played by Russell Crowe who is teetering on the edge of morbid obesity at this point. His allegiances are unclear, but he has gold in his eyes like everyone else here.
“Call me fat one more time!”
The universe here is a strange one. It combines almost steampunk-ish weaponry with a bit of magic thrown in. Some characters speak Chinese, some speak campy, exaggerated English like they’ve been dubbed over (they haven’t). Others, namely the two non-Asians RZA and Crowe, just talk like they’re in a regular film.
The style of the film is a hodgepodge of the old and new, and ends up being a bit too wacky for its own good. Instead of going full-retro like Black Dynamite, only the camera shots echo that of kung-fu flicks, but the film quality itself remains decidedly new school. Warriors duke it out to the fresh beats of Kanye West, and it seems like more of a YouTube remix of a movie than a movie itself.
Storywise, RZA has surprisingly cast himself as the least interesting character in the film. He does practically nothing for the first two thirds, then suddenly gains a mild purpose toward the end. it would have been fine for RZA to cast himself as a sub-character, but he clearly wants to be the lead by awkwardly shoehorning in a rather unnecessary backstory for himself, and of course naming the entire movie after his character. With as much of an homage as this film is, it’s clear RZA loves old school kung-fu flicks, but what’s not clear is if he can write, direct and star in one effectively.
There are some good performances here. Russell Crowe is lecherous and dangerous, but the favorite would have to be Silver Lion, Byron Mann, who is the only one in the film who seems to get the humor right. Everyone else is either playing it too goofy, or too straight.
Despite arterial spray galore which assuredly brings a tear to Tarantino’s eye, this is just not even in the same universe as his films. The style is all wrong, the story is weak and the action doesn’t wake up for it. An interesting experiment, but a failed one.
2 out of 5 stars