Once upon a time, kung fu movies were huge in the United States, despite poor dubbing, and less than quality camera work. An entire generation was exposed not only to the unique styles of Asian cinema, but also to a culture that before was portrayed by incredibly stereotypical characters and white actors in yellow face (for the most part). So when this generation grew up, they of course wanted to pay homage to the movies that inspired them. Two such men are acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino, and Hip-hop megastar/actor RZA (pronounced Ri-Zah for the unintiated). But where as Tarantino’s Kill Bill is regarded as one of the great modern-era martial arts epics, how does the RZA’s debut film hold up?
Let’s take a look at The Man with the Iron Fists.
The film takes place sometime during the 19th century, in a small place called Jungle Village. The main plot is about gold being stolen as it is being transported across a province and how the many clans and rival groups of this one village want to steal it for themselves. The rest you can figure out from the trailers – it’s all about big battle scenes and moving dialogue. There are no real surprises when it comes to the plot, though I will say it was kind of convoluted. I know, I know, no one is really in this movie for the plot, but there at least has to be some effort made to make the movie understandable.
And speaking of plot, the pacing is a little odd. It feels a lot like the movie is rushing to get to the big scenes, and willing sacrifices character development to get to the action scenes faster. Or the sexy-time scenes. Whichever. The problem is that the movie felt like it was a speeding train to nowhere – since we never get to spend a lot of time with the characters, even the main one, the payoff has no satisfaction. Generic happy ending – great. That’s really nice and all, but without the emotional attachment, I just find myself uninterested in anything that happens to them. The only people I came to care about were two people who get maybe 8 minutes of screen time before they die, in only because I thought the way they fought looked cool.
Oh hey – yeah, about that stylized gore, it’s a mixed bag. Some of the fight scenes are great. Some of them, especially in the beginning, are really hard to follow. The editing makes it hard to see what’s going on and since they wear similarly colored clothes, I’d be momentarily confused who was beating the crap out of whom until the shot stabilized, or we’d get a close up on their faces. Personally, some of the martial arts showcased weren’t all that impressive, even if some of the styles were over-the-top for laughs.
Personally, this film shines in terms of how it looks. The scenery and the design of the costuming and weapons was gorgeous. It’s lavish, bright and beautiful when it needs to be, but also warm and earthy at the right moments. Nothing in this movie looks, or feels, half-assed or plain. Personally, I’d like to view this film how I view Sucker Punch – it’s almost like a very elaborate work of art that happens to be not-such-a-stellar-movie.
I will admit, there are some good laughs in this film, mostly because of the bravado of the characters themselves. RZA does okay as the blacksmith Thaddeus, and certainly seems to put a lot of love into the role. Russell Crowe is fine, though seems to fizzle out a little during the course of the film. Rick Yune seems a little wooden in his performance, which is a shame really, since his character had one of the better backstories. The two stars in my opinion are Lucy Liu as Madame Blossom and Byron Mann as Silver Lion. Liu is spot on, sort of revising her role as super-badass from Kill Bill, though it feels a little like they cast her because of that role alone and not to actually add anything to this particular role itself. But she is at least one of the most competent women in the film.
Silver Lion is probably my new favorite villain of all time. He fights very hard core, and I guess is imposing enough, but is totally and absolutely hilarious. He’s conceited, crazy, childish, macho, and psychotically plotting, and totally steals the film for me. I mean, come on, he literally taunts a guy before he kills him…then taunts him again for the sake of being a dick. And that, in my very humble Internet reviewer opinion, is the best type of crazed villainy ever.
I will say I saw this film with an Asian friend and she was not what I would call happy about the portrayal of some of the characters. I am more willing to leave the rather blatant oriental-ism (the nice way of saying stereotypical) to the fact that this film is kind of an homage to the old martial arts movies rather than being racial insensitive but I do admit I can see what she means. For example, all the women (save for one) are fetishized prostitutes, a lot of characters are played for laughs alone, and only one of the main heroes is Chinese. It might have been the intention for the film to cast these roles this way, but I don’t think it was meant to be offensive. If you’re not sure you’ll like how the characters will be portrayed, you may not want to see it. If you don’t particularly care about casting and choices like that, it shouldn’t really bother you.
Overall, The Man with the Iron Fists is a bit of a disappointment. It’s trying to honor these movies of old while striving to be fresh and interesting, but ends up doing very little of either. If you want a sexy, butt-kicking movie to laugh both with and at, feel free to check it out at your leisure. But if you’re looking for something more out of your high-flying kung-fu adventure, go rent a Stephen Chow movie. Trust me, you’ll save a lot of money and enjoy it way more.
– Strong soundtrack.
– Great setting and costume design.
– Interesting characters (to an extent)
– Poor editing in the action scenes.
– Poor pacing.
– Convoluted plot.