The main conceit behind The Man with the Iron Fists is pretty sound: make a homage to the classic Shaw Brothers martial arts films of the 70s with modern sensibilities, not unlike Kill Bill. While it never comes close to that movie’s level of awesomeness, The Man with the Iron Fists is pretty decent in its own right.
A Blacksmith (Robert Diggs aka RZA), who makes weapons for cash, finds out that his creations are being used by the Lion Clan to steal a large amount of gold from a local warlord. He teams up with the dishonored brother (Rick Yune) of the clan’s new leader (Byron Mann), the owner of a brothel (Lucy Liu) and a British soldier (Russell Crowe) to stop them as they pass through his village.
Writer/director/actor RZA has a great eye for amazing looking, and somewhat violently beautiful, shots (when Rick Yune slices up the guards and we see the blood trails curving through the air in slow motion). He managed to snag some serious talent to help him out behind-the-scenes, from Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth producing, to Cory Yuen choreographing the fight scenes and Chi Ying Chan as cinematographer (he’s shot dozens of Chinese action/martial art films). This ex-rapper knew who to pursue in order to make an authentic feeling, yet updated, old fashioned kung fu flick. He pulls it off for the most part.
However, casting himself as the main character was RZA’s fatal mistake. The dude simply cannot act, period. And to make matters worse is that he narrates the film in his usual mumbling fashion and odd ghetto lisp (“Da Chinese say ‘Where dere’s iyun dere’s wust.’”) complete with “muthafuckas” and all that. Could he even be bothered to enunciate his dialogue? Hearing him attempt and fail while speaking Cantonese made me chuckle a few times as well. He devotes a good chunk of the story’s focus to his character who isn’t interesting in the slightest. Making him an escaped slave/shaolin monk/blacksmith is a little too much to take in since he isn’t convincing in the role at all. I would have preferred to get more backstory on Russell Crowe’s and Rick Yune’s characters. And to top it all off he sucks ass during his fight scenes. He performs one move once he gets his iron arms: Block opponent’s attack with one arm, punch them in the face with the other over and over and over again. His final fight is performed by a stunt double because RZA normally moves so sluggishly that when his character goes all Fist of the North Star on Dave Bautista it’s obvious that it’s not him. He just looks out of place for the most part, and although this was released before Tarantino’s Django Unchained you know that his producer influenced the decision to include an ex-slave as the lead while writing the script. There are some similarities between the two projects that are not coincidental, I’m sure.
The rest of the cast is fine and appear to be having a blast in their roles. Russell Crowe was the last person I would ever expect to see in an old school Samurai Sunday homage, but he looks like he’s enjoying himself immensely not having to play a serious character for a change. His Jack Knife has one of the coolest weapons ever: a spinning dual layered hunting knife with a gun for a handle and a throwing spur attached to the side. Seeing it in action put a smile on my face and I want to own a replica of it asap. I don’t think I will be able to look at Crowe the same way again after seeing him give cunnilingus to an Asian hooker underwater, but I haven’t liked him in a role other than this for years so I’m willing to let it go.
Rick Yune usually plays villains (Die Another Day, Ninja Assassin, The Fast and the Furious), so seeing him playing a hero was a nice surprise. He excels at his fight scenes and turns in a nice performance as the vengeful X-Blade. On the flip side, Byron Mann (Ryu from Van Damme’s craptastic Street Fighter) usually plays heroes, so seeing him as the main villain was also a nice surprise. The problem is that he’s not menacing at all and comes off as just a skinny dude with crazy eyes that never seems to fight anyone.
Lucy Liu plays her character of Madam Blossom as a heroic variation of O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill. She treats her salesladies right and makes sure the customers are well taken care of, but when someone decides to mess with her business she takes matters into her own hands to prove that she won’t put up with a bunch of bullies lying down (pun intended). Her speech to her hookers about how men have held power for too long is well written and performed, and Liu’s fight scenes are pretty spectacular (love her Kitana inspired bladed fan).
All the co-stars, be it MMA fighter Cung Le, the beautiful and criminally underused Jamie Chung and wrestler Dave Bautista, turn in decent performances. I can’t complain at all since their characters all add to the varied looks and personalities of the cast. Seeing Pam Grier in a cameo role made my day.
The fights are the main reason to watch this movie as you probably already have guessed. Filled with off-the-wall gore and insane wire-fu, sometimes involving six or more people at once, the action scenes are truly epic and make this a must see for fans of the genre. The last 20 minutes is a non-stop martial arts-a-thon that follows four fights at once. Well, three because I’m not counting RZA’s lame ass block/punch combo a real fight scene. Poison darts, yin/yang interlocking swords, razor sharp scarfs, clawed gloves, a dude that turns to brass and boomerang fans are some of the crazy weapons being used to battle, and aside from the one fight I mentioned earlier I enjoyed every action scene immensely. Although I will say that the CGI used to turn Dave Bautista into his Brass Body form was pretty crappy. He looks like a cartoon, or a character out of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
Now then, you can have all the fancy kung fu fights you want as long as the story is at least as fun as the action. Unfortunately that’s where the film falters. There are way too many characters to keep track of and none of them have anything to do other than randomly pick fights or kill someone for shits and giggles. Nothing of note happens for the first half of the movie, and the editing is so bad at some points that I became confused and lost a few times. How hard is it to show the person delivering a key piece of dialogue during pivotal moment of a conversation? Apparently it’s pretty damned hard since it happens more than once. Even some of the fights are choppily edited, even in the Unrated Extended Cut I saw.
As I mentioned earlier, this is like an Asian Game of Thrones. Way too many characters and each of them has a ridiculously stupid name. Brass Body, Gold Lion, Silver Lion, Copper Lion, Bronze Lion, Iron Lion, Poison Dagger, Lady Silk and more. Sure it’s harkening back to the Golden Harvest/Shaw Brothers films of way back, but it is confusing when so many characters have such similar sounding names and they are all being thrown at you in rapid fire succession. I was lost for the first half of the movie, saying to myself “Is that Brass Lion? No, it’s Bronze Lion. Brass belongs to Brass Body. Fuck metal.”
Another issue is the dialogue. Russell Crowe manages to make even the lamest line sound convincing (“For me, this business is the pleasure”), but whenever RZA speaks or narrates the awfulness of the script becomes clear (“When it comes to money, things get funny”). He gives himself all the choice moments but can’t pull any of them off due to his inability to act or the fact that he talks like he has poop in his mouth.
Is it a good film? If you want some amazingly choreographed martial arts battles then I’d say yes. If you want a cohesive movie that combines great action and plot I’d say no. It’s par the course for this type of movie and I never really expected to be blown away by the story. I just wished the movie was more fun when it wasn’t showing someone getting their arms hacked off with a red hot sword by a guy that can turn his skin into metal. RZA knows his way around this genre for sure, and he has a great visual style. His problems stem from the fact that he needs to learn how to tell a story and that he definitely shouldn’t cast himself as the lead in his films. If he can overcome these issues I’m sure he could be a force to reckon with in the genre. But since this film bombed at the box office I don’t see him getting another film greenlighted anytime soon. And if he does I hope it’s not the sequel that is set up during the end credits.
3 out of 5