Thursday, November 8, 2012


(US/China - 2012)

Directed by RZA.  Written by RZA and Eli Roth.  Cast: Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, RZA, Rick Yune, Byron Mann, David Bautista, Cung Le, Jamie Chung, Pam Grier, Gordon Liu, Daniel Wu, Kuan Tai Chen, Xue Jing Yao, Zhu Zhu, Dennis Chan, Telly Liu, Gang Zhou.  (R, 96 mins)

Wu-Tang Clan leader and kung-fu movie superfan RZA makes his long-planned directing debut with this martial arts homage, co-written by Eli Roth (HOSTEL) and "presented by" Quentin Tarantino.   It's a strange film that careens wildly between homage, spoof, and serious martial arts, never quite gelling but providing some occasionally entertaining moments.  RZA's initial rough cut is rumored to have run nearly four hours, and a lot of material is clearly missing, which probably explains why Pam Grier is in this for about eight seconds with one word of dialogue. 

In the Chinese town of Jungle Village in the 19th century, the treacherous Silver Lion (Byron Mann) murders a beloved clan leader, which sets off a chain reaction of clashes that will eventually bring together three lone warriors:  the dead man's vengeful son Zen Yi, aka "The X-Blade" (Rick Yune), the Jungle Village blacksmith (RZA) who unknowingly forged the weapon that was used to kill Zen Yi's father, and mysterious British mercenary Jack Knife (Russell Crowe).  The blacksmith, an ex-slave who fled America after killing a racist white man in self-defense, has ambitions beyond Jungle Village and is planning to run off with Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), who works in Madam Blossom's (Lucy Liu) brothel, where much of the action and carnage takes place. 

Owing as much to spaghetti westerns as it does to badly-dubbed 1970s kung-fu flicks (and arguably Jim Jarmusch's 2000 cult classic GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI, which was scored by RZA), THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is the kind of film that's made for fans, by fans, but it rarely seems as "fun" as it should be.  RZA's blacksmith and Yune's X-Blade are pretty dour throughout, leaving most of the jovial antics to an uncharacteristically amusing Crowe, who's rarely cut loose like this on screen before.  Playing Jack Knife as more or less a tribute to Richard Burton and, to some extent, his GLADIATOR co-star Oliver Reed, Crowe appears to be one of the very few cast members who seems to understand what kind of movie he's in, playing a wisecracking, cognac-swilling horndog with a big gut, working three of Madam Blossom's ladies at once in some rather perverse ways (there's one quick shot involving beads and another where he's holding a phallic-shaped device and says "Let's pretend to be Catholic"). Or a scene where he's revealed to be in a dubious-looking Chinese disguise accompanied by--wait for it--the sound of a gong.  Crowe was apparently only on the set for ten days and there's long stretches where his presence would liven things up a bit.  It's one of his oddest roles, and he likely did the film as a favor to RZA, who had a supporting role in 2007's AMERICAN GANGSTER, during which the two became friends.

Elsewhere, Mann approaches this the same way as Crowe as the ludicrously over-the-top Silver Lion, who looks like he belongs in a bad Asian '80s hair metal band.  MMA fighters David Bautista and Cung Le have supporting roles as bad guys, and genre legend Gordon Liu gets to once again don his KILL BILL Pai Mei beard to play a wise old mentor.  RZA's film is obviously made out of love and respect, but it ends up being mostly forgettable.  He includes a lot of in-jokes for fans, like deliberately having some shots out of focus or the camera moving erratically for no reason, which come close to taking the film into spoof territory, but sometimes it's played totally straight, and the general feeling is one of unevenness.  There's a jarring sense of video-game modernity to the hyper-stylized fight scenes and the overabundance of CGI splatter.  This is a case where the old-fashioned ways would've made major improvements.  As it is, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is enjoyable enough for a discount matinee price, but even with the surprise participation of an A-lister like Crowe, the whole thing has a distinct and undeniable straight-to-DVD feel to it.

No comments:

Post a Comment