Man With the Iron Fists, The: Starring Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu

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.

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 Tarantino’s name.

“Man With the Iron Fists” delivers the goods expected from this kind of formulaic fare.  Here is a movie that was specifically made with a clear primary target audience in mind.

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-stars, including 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 while watching it.  Crowe proves that he may be more diverse as an actor than usually 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 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, an anti-hero who descends on one Chinese village in a battle for a gold fortune.  He is assisted by the usual suspects of this genre: assassins, warriors, and an assortment of women, who are as tough as (or tougher than) their male counterparts.

Admittedly, there is certain pleasure in watching an unpretentious, movieish epic, in which the central characters are called Jack Knife (played by Crowe), Madam Blossom (Liu), Silver Lion, and Poison Dagger (see below).

RZA has cast himself as the Blacksmith, a 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 destruct the Jungle Village.

One of the fun elements of watching this picture is spotting the stars in the 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 principal talent is buoyed by some legendary performers who have played historical roles in the very definition of the action genre, including Pam Grier (queen of 1970s Blaxploitation movies and the star of Tarantino’s 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.

Tarantino and Roth (credited as co-scribe) must have played a more active part than acknowledged in the production of this ultra-violent movie, which blends thrilling martial arts sequences, executed by some of the world’s masters, with a sporadically involving tale of the Wu-Tang Clan leader.

RZA, best known by most people as a dominant figure of the hip-hop movement of the past two decades, is ambitious 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 young, undiscriminating viewers, but ultimately, he has made an ultra-familiar tale in which the parts are more impressive than the whole.