What you see on screen is what you get in “The Man with the Iron Fists,” the generic feature directorial debut of RZA, an old-fashioned action-adventure inspired by—and borrowing from—countless kung fu movies.
No doubt, this B-level, pastiche of a picture would have been better if it had been helmed by Tarantino—the movie is promoted as a “Quentin Tarantino Presentation,” trying to cash in on the cachet of the director’s name.
“Man with the Iron Fists” delivers the basic goods expected from this kind of fare. Here is a movie that was clearly made with a clear primary target audience in mind. As such, it fulfills expectations.
What elevates the picture slightly above the routine is Russell Crowe’s commanding performance, and the surprising positive vibes that he generates with his co-star, Lucy Liu (who had appeared in Tarantino “Kill Bill”). The fact that Crowe is not readily associated with this kind of mass entertainment actually increases the level of joy and pleasure while watching it. Crowe proves that me may be more diverse than given credit to.
Self-conscious and self-reflexive to the extreme, “Man with the Iron Fists” is helmed and co-written (with Eli Roth) by RZA, who also plays the starring role. RZA, along with his various collaborators (in front and behind the cameras) must have studied the genre’s essential elements by watching classic and not-so classic samplers of numerous kung fu flicks. End result is inevitably a pastiche, a mishmash of an actioner.
This is evident right away by the rudimentary plot, about a lone outsider hero (or anti-hero, depends on your POV), who descends on one Chinese village in a battle for a fortune in gold. He is assisted by the usual suspects of this genre: assassins, warriors, and an assortment of women, who are as tough (or tougher than) as their male counterparts.
Admittedly, there is certain pleasure in watching an unpretentious, movieish wannabe epic, in which the central characters are called Jack Knife (played Crowe), Madam Blossom (Liu), Silver Lion, and Poison Dagger (see below).
RZA has cast himself as the Blacksmith, a harsh, rough skillful fighter, contrasted with Zen Yi, aka the X-Blade, his warrior-in-arms. The Blacksmith is in love with Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), and threatened by Bronze Lion (Cung Le), a duplicitous traitor whose goal is to usher in the destruction of Jungle Village.
One of the fun elements of watching this picture is spotting the stars in what is a relatively large ensemble, trying to guess why they were cast in their particular roles and when was the last time you saw them in such action-adventures, American or foreign.
David Bautista plays the indestructible mercenary Brass Body; Byron Mann is Silver Lion, the treacherous soldier who claims to be the rightful clan heir; and Daniel Wu, one of China’s biggest movies stars, is Poison Dagger, the traitor who keeps his secrets as close as he holds his enemies.
The trio of stars and the above principal talent are buoyed by some legendary performers, who have played historical roles in the very definition of the action genre, including Pam Grier (queen of 19 70s Blaxploitation movies and the star of Tarantino’s still underestimated 1997 “Jackie Brown”) as the Blacksmith’s mother, Jane; Gordon Liu (“Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2”) as the Abbot, the stoic monk who instructs his pupil in the masters’ skills; Chen Kuan Tai, as Gold Lion, the most honorable clan chieftain; and Ka Yan Leung, as Hyena Chief, the group leader tricked into early grave.
I suspect that Tarantino and Roth (credited as co-scribe) have played a more active part than given credit in the production of this ultra-violent movie, which blends thrilling martial arts sequences, orchestrated and executed by some of the world’s masters of this specific genre, with a semi-involving tale of the Wu-Tang Clan leader.
RZA, best known by most people as one of the dominant figures of the hip-hop movement of the past two decades, is obviously ambitious in his goals as a filmmaker. In “The Man with the Iron Fists,” he goes out of his way to imbue his saga with the thrills and frills that would satisfy his young, not particularly discriminating viewers, but ultimately, his movie comes across as an ultra-familiar tale, in which some of the parts are far more impressive than the feature as a whole.