Truer words are rarely spoken. What of RZA’s directorial debut though? Does it live up to that mantra? Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Before we get into the flaws within this particular piece of exploitation cinema, let’s examine what we are really looking at here. This is no old school kung-fu throwback to the Shaw Bros. days of yore and it’s quite clear it was never meant to be. While many of the genre’s classic elements are on full display, The Man With The Iron Fists is its own modern beast. It is less One-Armed Swordsman and Five Deadly Venoms and more Kill Bill and Grindhouse in nature. In fact, the film would not be out of place as one half of a Grindhouse sequel double bill, if such a thing had ever happened. If you are going into this expecting fantastic old school martial arts battles, you are in for a rude awakening.
This tale of carnage centers on a jungle outpost in China long ago called Jungle Village. The governor of this province is moving a shipment of gold to his army in the north and this shipment will be passing through said outpost. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that every greedy little bastard in the area wants to steal the shipment and kill anyone who stands in their way. It’s a classic action set-up that is littered with lavish sets, fantastical concepts, and batshit insane characters. While it’s easy to credit producer Tarantino for such a concept, all of these elements are present throughout the kung-fu genre and it would be a disservice to RZA to not assume all (or at least most) ideas present have been filtered through his own brain and not someone else’s.
Let’s talk Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth though. Both were producers on the film, although I suspect Quentin’s involvement was very limited. Roth, on the other hand, also helped co-write the script and was on-set to help out. Going into the film, I was curious to see exactly how obvious Roth’s fingerprints would be visible over the film. Would Eli be an overbearing producer or even resort to a little ghost directing? Nope. In fact, I kind of wish he would have helped out a little more, particularly in the editing room. There are numerous fight sequences in the film that seem very well-choreographed. I say “seem” because it’s almost impossible to tell. These scenes have been cut to ribbons in the form of nonsensical quick cuts that are so numerous it is extremely hard to tell what the hell is going on most of the time. It also makes it impossible to see exactly what all of the cool weapons on display can do. The only time things seem to take a step back and allow the scuffles to breathe is during the final action sequence where our three heroes and villains separately face off against one another. Another odd choice is that, despite a large portion of the film taking place in a brothel, there is next to no nudity in this film. Not a complaint, just something that really stood out after awhile.
The film is a brisk 96 minutes. Word has it that RZA’s preferred cut is closer to the 3 hours in length and one wonders if part of the missing footage has just been sliced out of the fights scenes in some foolhardy way to amp things up. Perhaps we’ll find out once it hits home video, but until then we get the hand we have been dealt. If it sounds like I’m being harsh on the film…well, I am. This is first and foremost a martial arts piece. Judging the film in regards to that fact, it absolutely comes up short. While the editors are very much to blame, the true culprits are both producer Eli Roth and director RZA himself for allowing the film to hit the masses as is. Honestly, it’s a little embarrassing, especially when you have fantastic martial arts extravaganzas like The Raid released in the same year. While the style is completely different, at least you have the ability to tell what is going on in that film.
Things are not all bad though. The story itself is a mash-up of countless chop-socky clichés and it actually works quite well. Beyond that, the characters are a hoot, especially the names. Brass Body. Crazy Hippo. Silver Lion. Poison Dagger. The X-Blade. How can you not have fun with that? A lot of reviews are proclaiming that the film is full of awful performances, but I disagree. RZA is gushing with love for the kung-fu films of old that he has been watching his entire life. Given that fact, it seems far more likely that some of the bombastic or stilted performances are a result of the cast knowing exactly the kind of film that RZA wanted to make and giving it to him in spades. Byron Mann, Rick Yune, Lucy Liu, and former pro-wrestler David Bautista are having a grand time playing their ridiculously over-the-top characters.
RZA himself plays one of the three leads, a blacksmith named Thaddeus. At one point we are treated to a beyond-on-the-nose backstory for his character, who is a former plantation slave…complete with Pam Grier appearing as his mother*. We then jump to how he ended up in China (arriving on a ship named Destiny, no less) and his training at the hands of monks**, but are never given the details of how he arrived at this particular village. And you know what? That doesn’t matter. This film doesn’t work on a storytelling level in spite of being overstuffed, but because of it. While things are likely different in the rumored longer cut, no plot development outstays its welcome before we are knee-deep into another one. RZA provides occasional narration and does an amiable job. His performance is the weakest in the film, but the other leads pick up the slack. Rick Yune is the second of these. He’s given the typical honorable straight-man role and plays it well. It is the third lead, however, who keeps the film from becoming a forgettable period romp.
What exactly is Tugger’s best friend doing in this film anyway? Sleepwalking for a paycheck? Killing time between bigger projects? Neither, my friends. Judging from the enthusiasm on display from the man’s performance, the character of Jacknife himself is the reason he came on board. I don’t think I’ve seen Crowe visibly have this much fun with a role since 1995’s Virtuosity. What makes it even more entertaining is the fact that he is obviously playing the role as a tribute to his late friend, Oliver Reed. The voice, the mannerisms, the attitude, the sleaze…all are vintage Oliver Reed. Jack is an English gentleman/mercenary who enjoys killing, fucking, and boozing his way through this film from start to finish and Crowe relishes every minute of it. Ever see an Academy Award-winner gleefully pull anal beads out of a prostitute with his teeth in the bathtub? You will here. Every time the film started to annoy me with its god-awful fight edits, Mr. Knife would saunter into the next scene and redeem it.
Is such a performance (as well as the others) enough to make a martial arts movie with lackluster fight scenes worth watching? I think so, at least enough to slightly increase my rating. The sets are beautiful, the characters are a blast, and the fights seem well-choreographed…all of which is unfortunately undermined by incompetent filmmaking. I’m not going to advocate that you are missing out on an underrated gem by not catching this in theaters. You aren’t. I do think that if the previews, the talent, and/or anything I’ve written above has struck your fancy, you do owe it to yourself to give this one a look on down the road. Catch it in a dollar theater. Redbox or Netflix it. Stream it. Borrow it from a friend. THAT is the kind of film this is. Just make sure that those of you that actually are still determined to catch this on the silver screen go into your local theater with your heads in the right place. If you do, I think you’ll have a fun time. This is no Warrior’s Way or Bunraku-esque fiasco, after all. If you don’t, well, I warned you!
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
* – It will be interesting to see if any connections to Django Unchained are present.
** – One of whom is Gordon Liu and possibly meant to be a certain character in his pre-cruel tutelage days.