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The Man With The Iron Fists – film review

December 5, 2012


Profane opening song sets tone for shameless ultra-violent fun.

Reviewed on Tuesday 20th November 2012.

RZA - man with the iron fists

Directed by RZA. Written by RZA and Eli Roth. Starring: RZA, Russell Crowe, Cung Le, Lucy Liu, Byron Mann, Rick Yune, David Bautista and Jamie Chung. Running time: 96 mins.

In 19th Century China, warring clans tussle for supremacy. When word gets out that a shipment of the Emperor’s gold is to pass through the provincial settlement of Jungle Village (a small town whose most prominent feature is a Wild West-style brothel), it is up to pacifist blacksmith Thadeus (RZA) to join forces with a British mercenary in order to thwart the planned gold heist by the various clans and exact revenge for the loss of his hands and the death of his prostitute girlfriend.

If all this sounds long-winded and contrived – it is – but the plot never bogs down the CGI blood-letting in this ultra-violent homage to Hong Kong martial arts pictures from the 70’s.

The Man With The Iron Fists is the directorial debut of American rapper and Wu-Tang Clan member RZA – a collaborator of Quentin Tarantino’s, who provided music for Kill Bill among other things. RZA co-wrote the screenplay with Eli Roth (Hostel) as well as starring in the film and scoring the soundtrack.

The opening titles set the tone perfectly – with a Grindhouse sensibility and hip hop rap performed by RZA himself – which must feature what have to be the most profane lyrics for any movie opening title song ever – “Shame on the nigger who tried to run game on the nigger/I gave it the shit – I really like me diarrhea not but once when it was only gonorrhea!/Dirty Mother Fuck!/Fuck Ass – Yo!” But far from taking offence to this expletive-fuelled barrage, the sheer audacity of it immediately endeared the film to me in a way it probably wouldn’t have if it had been, say – Phil Collins – or someone similarly harmless singing over the opening titles.

With competent, yet unremarkable direction from RZA, I began to realize halfway through watching this – it suddenly struck me – Iron Fists is essentially an American western relocated to the Far East. Imagine The Magnificant Seven remade as The Seven Samurai (instead of the reverse) or in this case – a Chinese Rio Bravo.

Russell Crowe as Jack Knife.

Russell Crowe seems to be having a whole heap of fun channeling both Oliver Reed and Richard Burton as gun-for-hire Jack Knife, spending most of his screen time blind drunk while romping around in bed with a trio of comely whores. By comparison, RZA himself is surprisingly low-key as Thadeus. He is rarely seen in close up in the first half of the film and I began to wonder if maybe he’s just a little bit shy? Lucy Liu as the brothel madam isn’t nearly as bland as she has been in past roles and Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch) is as lovely as always – but given so little to do here as RZA’s doomed love interest, Lady Silk.

Jamie Chung as Lady Silk.

Production values are fairly high for this type of material, with the authentic Shanghai locations adding much to the sense of verisimilitude.

The only thing which really cheapens the look of the film is the none-too-convincing CGI. The onslaught of digital blood-letting diminishes the visceral impact of the violent scenes, rendering them as involving as watching a video game. There is, however, a shocking act of machete violence (achieved with prosthetics) perpetrated against RZA’s character which comes right out of nowhere – as horrific as Murphy being blown away in Robocop – as unexpected as Neo being blinded in Matrix Revolutions.

The fight scenes are mostly incomprehensible with an overabundance of Matrix-style slo-mo wire gymnastics coupled with way too many close up shots edited in the stroboscopic manner of Michael Bay – which leaves the viewer oddly uninvolved. Supposedly a tribute to Hong Kong martial arts movies – particularly those made by the Shaw Brothers – there is simply no sense of artistry and skill in the choreography which ultimately negates the purpose of making a homage to this particular style of martial arts cinema in the first place. Although I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, it seems to me that the appeal of Hong Kong martial arts movies lies in the fact that the action is shot mostly using wide angles, with long extended takes, allowing the choreography to play out in real time – so we the audience are given the opportunity to appreciate the mastery and effort which has gone into creating fast, exciting, seamless fight scenes – where the pace of the action is dictated by the skill of the performers and not the editor. It seems odd that RZA – a self-proclaimed afficionado of this particular style of action – chose not to emulate it – opting instead for the ‘mindless montage’ approach often favoured by the current crop of lazy hack action directors. Perhaps it was a style imposed on him by the upstairs money men. Apparently during the extended editing process, RZA threatened to quit the production and remove his name from the credits – which indicates there was indeed some kind of studio interference going on.

Despite this and despite my not having any particular affinity for either hip hop music or martial arts movies, the pairing of the two here works surprisingly well in conveying a playfulness which is ultimately fun and entertaining.

3 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Palace/Nova Cinemas, Adelaide, November 20th 2012.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.


From → film reviews

  1. This actually sounds really good! Had no idea this existed, but you have made me want to check it out! Cheers Greg 🙂

  2. gregory moss permalink

    Cheers Tyson. 🙂 Yeah, it opens today here in Oz. I’m amazed it hasn’t opened there in the UK. Perhaps it’s been and gone already? It’s well worth a look – if only to see Russell Crowe enjoying himself and not taking things too seriously. I think he could actually make quite a good comedic actor if given the right material.

    • When you dont hit reply, it doesnt remind me so I forget to look or think your ignoring me, damn you!!

      Anyway, thats why this reply is late! I think it must of been and gone here, maybe select cinemas only, as torrents are already showing up for it which is sign that the dvd/blu ray is already available 😦

      Would love to see RC doing some comedy. He is quite funny if I recall when he has been on some UK chat shows, Jonathan Ross springs to mind a few years back.

      • gregory moss permalink

        Haha! – Yeah, I know what you mean about sometimes forgetting to tick the reply box – it’s a real pain. 🙂

        Before I saw Iron Fists I had never heard of RZA or The Wu-Tang Clan. I should probably see if I can track down those Jonathan Ross clips on you-tube perhaps. A friend of mine interviewed RZA last week and apparently he’s thinking about doing a big-budget Genghis Kahn epic next. Now that would be cool! 🙂

      • A Genghis Kahn epic would be great! 🙂

  3. I’m willing to give this movie the benefit of the doubt, I want to see it.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Yeah, it’s not brain surgery. But I can think of worse ways to spend 96 minutes. 🙂

  4. I saw this last month. It was slightly disappointing for myself but only because after a while I found myself bored. I would have to see it again to see how it feels a second time around but I did like Crowe’s character. The fact that he originally wanted it to be a 3 or 4 hour movie seemed unnesscary so glad they kept it as such. I agree on the CGI though it was the weapons that mainly caught my attention. I loved what they were able to come up with.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Yeah the weapons were pretty cool, eh? While its not the best film I saw last year – it certainly wasn’t the worst (Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter has that distinction). And as I had virtually zero expectations going into RZA’s film (not being a huge fan of the martial arts genre), it was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. But I recently caught Ninja Assassin the other day and it was actually really quite good – despite its reliance on CGI blood – which still looks less than convincing. 🙂

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