The rural Chinese town of Jungle Village must be one of the most violent towns in the entire world. Of the many violent clans that fight for control of the town, the most ruthless and skillful is the Lion Clan. When their leader Gold Lion is betrayed, his son Zen Yi (Rick Yune), the infamous X-Blade, returns to town to take revenge on his father. Unfortunately, it’s a bad time for revenge, because Gold Lion had agreed to safeguard a shipment of the Emperor’s gold on its way to the troops in the north. That gold has drawn together multiple elements, including the villainous Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le), a mysterious Westerner named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), Jungle Village’s brothel queenpin Lady Blossom (Lucy Liu), and the noble Blacksmith (RZA) who simply wants to keep Jungle Village from being wiped off the map.
You have to give RZA all the credit in the world. This movie is a labour of love for him, and it shows, as he’s got his hands in every aspect of the production. He’s the co-writer, director, and star, and he spent two years developing the film with producer and co-writer Eli Roth, right down to the look and feel of the signature weapons used by the various characters throughout the film. At one point, the film was four hours long, which is kind of mind-boggling for such a simple story of revenge and greed and face-kicking. Still, the hard work behind the scene shows in the richness of the results.
The attention to detail involved in the movie is very impressive. The Man With The Iron Fists has some of the coolest weapons I’ve ever seen on film, from Jack Knife’s titular knife to The Blacksmith’s iron fists, to the claws and cane used by Silver Lion and Bronze Lion, even Lucy Liu’s iron fan is a thing of beauty. The costume department should be commended for the creativity in which everyone is dressed, and it’s pretty easy to tell who is who based on what they’re wearing, what they’re carrying, and what their hair/wig looks like, even in the most frenetic of fight scenes. The various clans all very easy to tell apart, and telling the major characters from the red shirts is also very easy. The filming locations themselves are also stellar, with the Pink Blossom being one of the most interesting fight venues since the House of Falling Leaves in Iron Fists‘ inspiration, Kill Bill.
The key to any kung fu movie is to have distinctive signature elements for every fighter, and Roth, RZA, and fight coordinator Corey Yuen do just that. Yuen’s fight scenes play to the strengths of his performers, with the graceful Lucy Liu twirling and dancing, the hulking Dave Bautista bashing, and experienced martial artists like Rick Yune and Cung Le doing the bulk of the fight scenes. They even manage to work around RZA’s lack of fighting experience by making him a brawler. The fight scenes are well-paced, bloody, and very clever, even if they do spend a lot of time shattering balsa wood furniture.
RZA isn’t the best actor in the world, and he makes an odd decision to play The Blacksmith as a cypher through which the events can be seen. It’s supposed to be philosophical, but it ends up coming across as lifeless. Fortunately he takes a back seat to the more outrageous characters in this universe. Rick Yune is a good, if bland, hero, but it’s the supporting characters like Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and Byron Mann who come off well. Russell Crowe seems like he’s just having a blast with his role, and it shows as he really plays it up. Nobody’s going to win any awards for their performances, but nobody’s blatantly slacking off, either.
However, I do have some issues with RZA as the director. The camera seems to be a little too close to the action some time. You’ve got some skilled martial artists in the cast and crew, I would have liked to see more of the fight scenes from a distance. As the film went on, either I got used to it or the cameras pulled back a little more. To his credit, RZA does make good use of his filming environment, he has some very clever cuts and swipes, and some of the film’s fight scenes are well shot; others, not so much. I would have liked to see a bit more of the action and a bit less of the editing bay.
All in all, The Man With The Iron Fists is entertaining, clever, and a well-done mash-up of hip hop and kung fu. It’s not perfect by any means, but it remains entertaining for its 90-minute run time.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan is very glad RZA knows as much about kung fu movies as he does about rap music, even if he does need a little more practise behind the camera. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.