The Man with the Iron Fists
Directed by RZA
Screenplay by Eli Roth, RZA
Russell Crowe, Cung Le, Lucy Liu, Byron Mann, RZA, Rick Yune, David Bautista, Jamie Chung
How long is The Man with the Iron Fists? 96 minutes.
What is The Man with the Iron Fists rated? R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use.
Enthusiastic, exuberant, and totally frivolous, RZA’s directorial debut is a playful, 96-minute punch in the head.
The Virginia Film Festival, in its 25th year, takes place in the lovely, colonial town of Charlottesville, east of Afton Mountain and west of Richmond. Sissy Spacek and husband Jack Fisk (who were a feature at the Badlands screening last year) call Charlottesville home. So does John Grisham. The University of Virginia is housed here, its picturesque grounds the centerpiece of Charlottesville, a heart around which veins of curving streets wind (torturously, for anyone unfamiliar). The festival generally draws crowds of all ages, from college freshmen to retired couples, canes clacking on the cobblestone.
RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists is playing in the last slot of opening night in a gorgeous, gilded, century-old theater. The crowd here is uncharacteristically young, the dress code decidedly collegiate: plaid flannel, huge plastic glasses frames (in at least one case, lacking lenses), denim jackets and vests, tall boots over skinny jeans and North Face jackets. The Tarantino-produced martial arts film, starring big names like Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, appeals most to young film nerds like me, it seems. After all, its tagline is “You can’t spell Kung Fu without F and U.”
The RZA, who produced the Kill Bill soundtrack, spent 30 days on the set of Tarantino’s 2003 revenge opus, studying the director’s every move. His education paid off, and along with Tarantino’s friend and fellow director Eli Roth, he wrote a screenplay for a kung fu movie so exuberantly violent and reverently silly, Tarantino couldn’t help slapping his name on it. After Universal picked it up, makeup great Greg Nicotero joined the fray, with Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and a host of big-name Asian actors jumping aboard.
The Man with the Iron Fists is nothing if not enthusiastic, its narrative fits and starts punctuated with glorious kung fu and layered with bright pinks and delicate silks. Set in nineteenth century China (and filmed entirely in and around Shanghai), it tells the tale of a freed slave who flees America and becomes the blacksmith in a small town in China. Three warring factions, the Lions, the Wolves, and the Hyenas, task him with creating elaborate weapons of death. When Silver Lion (Byron Mann) turns on his friend and mentor Gold Lion, he launches a war whose casualties draw the attention of warriors, assassins, and the Emperor himself.
Gold Lion’s son, warrior Zen Yi (Rick Yune), sets out to avenge his father’s wrongful death and immediately locks into battle with Brass Body (Dave Bautista), an evil warrior whose, well, body becomes brass when he commands it. Jack Knife (Crowe), a mysterious Englishman, appears in town and immediately makes himself at home with three whores at the Pink Blossom, a brothel run by Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu). The Blacksmith (RZA), hooded and silent, continues creating weapons and giving his daily pay to his paramour, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung). When the Lions learn he’s been making weapons for other clans, they chop off his cheating arms – but Jack Knife saves him from imminent death and helps him to build the titular Iron Fists. During the Blacksmith’s recovery, Madame Blossom agrees to hold the Lions’ newly acquired gold in an underground tomb, so long as she remains in control of “her girls.” The Geminis, a pair of assassins, come to town to stop the rampage. The war escalates, the battles more frenetic and bizarre, until the climax, a brightly choreographed sequence in the Pink Blossom.
It’s an ambitious directorial debut, and not without flaws. The narration-heavy opening act moves slowly, the slightly incoherent back story outlined by RZA – who’s famed, of course, for his rhymes and rhythm. You’ll find yourself hypnotized by the voice and forgetting to listen to the story. Every actor chews the hell out of the scenery, and writing partner Roth (I’m guessing, anyway) imbues the story with some tasteless jokes and unnecessarily gruesome deaths. The copious blood spray, flying eyeballs, anal beads, and perfunctory oaths don’t do much to further the story – but they deliver much-needed laughs.
Tarantino’s influence is obvious – the director has made a name for himself with loquacious protagonists, ultraviolence, and witty banter. Unfortunately RZA and Roth aren’t quite as adept with the delicate balance of funny/serious, violent/pretty, or profane/eloquent (and to be fair, even Tarantino, a veteran, doesn’t always get it right). The cast is largely comprised of Asian actors who aren’t big here (yet). Byron Mann’s turn as Silver Lion is hilariously wide-eyed and over the top, his crown of leonine hair illuminating his lunacy; Rick Yune’s sadly vengeful Zen Yi is attractive, earnest and clichéd. Dave Bautista’s rippling pectorals and lack of neck make him a formidable enemy even sans bronze, and MMA fighter Cung Le bears his fearsome chops against a tiny, acrobatic Lucy Liu.
The story hasn’t the depth to tackle character development, and no one actually gets much screen time. The choreography (and cinematography to showcase it) probably isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s more than adequate – the Gemini sequence, featuring a pair of twins fighting in tandem, using each other’s bodies as weapons, is particularly awesome. RZA, of course, produced a great soundtrack.
The crowd, which hooted and hollered through much of the film, claps heartily as the credits, done in homage to 70s grindhouse-kung-fu cinema, roll. People idle outside, grinning and looking slightly confused – The Man with the Iron Fists is a 96-minute mischievous punch in the head, and by the time it’s over you won’t quite know what hit you. “That was really silly,” someone declares loudly, his crooked grin betraying his pleasure. Why yes, yes it was – and if that’s what you’re after this weekend, by all means go. It’s an enjoyably frivolous experience, and if you put your money where your mouth is, maybe we’ll see more from the RZA – the man has style, but he needs some more time, funds, and studio support to polish it.