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Overall Rating

Awesome: 4.35%
Worth A Look: 13.04%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 4.35%

3 reviews, 5 user ratings

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Man with the Iron Fists, The
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by Brett Gallman

"A soulful Shaw Brothers throwback."
3 stars

There’s little questioning RZA’s enthusiasm for the genre that primarily informs “The Man with the Iron Fists.” After all, the Wu-Tang clan derives its name from an 80s kung fu flick (“Shaolin and Wu Tang”). Without knowing this, however, that enthusiasm still shows in his directorial debut, and it’s almost enough to outrun the film’s flaws.

Working from a script he penned with Eli Roth, RZA literally delivers the film’s tale as a blacksmith caught up in the turmoil of a 19th century Chinese village that’s fallen victim to a clan feud. In an overwrought, expository dialogue, he sets the stage by introducing the various warriors of the clan: Zen-Yi (Rick Yune), the son of the Lion Clan leader whose murder by his own lieutenant (Byron Mann) kicks of a struggle that’s also centered around the transport of some government gold.

Details and characters continue to pour into the overstuffed, convoluted narrative (Russell Crowe wanders in as a womanizing government emissary, while Lucy Liu emerges as an icy brothel keeper), but everything remarkably makes just enough sense, especially once everything gets running. It’s almost as if RZA winds up one of those mechanical organ bands before letting it run wild with kung fu fights and cool weaponry. Supernatural wrinkles, such as a thug (Dave Batista) whose body turns into solid brass, make for a crazy quilt that’s stitched together from various genres and influences. Even the ludicrous backstory that’s concocted for the blacksmith manages to draw from Blaxploitation westerns and Shaolin martial arts movies within the span of five minutes (and there’s even genre appropriate cameos for each).

Pastiche is the more appropriate term, of course. The presence of Roth and producer Quentin Tarantino rightfully point to this being another “Grindhouse” style revival, which is a fair enough assumption. On that spectrum, it veers closer to “Planet Terror” than it does “Death Proof.” RZA isn’t as knowingly silly or irreverent as Rodriguez, but “Man with the Iron Fists” is still a heightened throwback that only carries over the kernel of the aesthetic RZA is riffing on, so there’s window dressing in the way of a retro title sequence and Shaw-styled blood geysers. Overall, it lacks the visual and stylistic acuity of Tarantino’s own similar offerings.

In particular, RZA and cinematographer Chi Ying Chan blow the most important calling card of the classic martial arts that inspired “Man With the Iron Fists”: the action. I don’t doubt that RZA is well-versed in this stuff, but it hardly shows whenever he stages his own action sequences. Instead of fluid, graceful lensing that would allow us to see the incredible stuntwork and choreography, he opts for a chaotic, inelegant approach that obscures it all. A look through the film’s credits will reveal a wealth of talent between choreographer Corey Yeun and the various martial artists at his disposal, but they’re almost uniformly wasted by the choppy, claustrophobic photography. Yeun’s work isn’t rendered nigh incomprehensible (as it was in “The Expendables”), but it’s disappointing to see RZA fumble this aspect.

It’s especially disappointing in light of how fun the film is otherwise. Filled with colorful characters and equally colorful scenes and production design (if only you could truly see all of it), “The Man With the Iron Fists” passes the initial eye test, particularly in the casting. Russell Crowe takes a real “what the hell is he doing here?” role and runs with it as the pot-bellied British pseudo-cowboy thrust into the far east. He’s named “Knife” because he carries a huge one around that’s like the bazooka of Swiss-army contraptions. Considering that most of his scenes require him to hang out in a brothel and frolic with its prostitutes, it’s safe to say Crowe is having a pretty good time right along with the other performers who are playing it broadly.

That doesn’t include everyone. One of RZA’s more inspired moves here is mixing it up; as the blacksmith, he brings an odd sort of dead-eyed pathos to the lead role. His performance pegs him as an outsider to the acting game, but he invests a necessary seriousness as the everyman trying to eek out an existence with his lady (rescued from the brothel, naturally), all the while navigating the shitstorm brewing around him. Likewise, Rick Yune compliments RZA as the dignified son out to avenge his father.

Roaring in from the other end of the spectrum is Byron Mann, whose performance as Silver Lion might be revelatory. Mann’s been around for a while--you might remember him as Ryu in the ill-fated “Street Fighter” movie--but he’s really hamming it up and relishing a role that asks him to be more a weasel than a lion. Dressed with an absurd mane that befits his clan’s name, he’s the absurd counterpoint that represents the film’s campier side, which also includes stilted dialogue delivery inspired by old dubbing and other assorted tics.

The reverence and camp feel like they should be at war with each other, but RZA pulls off the delicate balancing act. While “The Man With the Iron Fists” is no doubt a hot mess in other respects, the ability to toe the line between blank parody and outright parody is a fine achievement. To call this a vanity project implies a failure, but this one’s more of a misfire that only misses the mark because its director is spraying with all the precision of a buckshot blast. I’ll take untamed ambition over a mechanical, soulless throwback, even if it lacks the technical precision to keep up with itself.

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originally posted: 11/10/12 15:37:41
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User Comments

10/14/13 No Wu for Yu Stole the brass man idea from Ninja Scroll...still not bad 4 stars
12/23/12 John Bad acting, overrated background score, cartoonish violence, trippy wirework. 1 stars
11/13/12 KingNeutron Nice campfest from Tarantino, complete with scenery-chewing 4 stars
11/09/12 Abigail Inspiring Film! 5 stars
11/04/12 mr.mike Enjoyable for genre fans. 4 stars
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  02-Nov-2012 (R)
  DVD: 12-Feb-2013


  DVD: 12-Feb-2013

Directed by

Written by
  Eli Roth

  Jamie Chung
  Russell Crowe
  Lucy Liu
  Dave Bautista
  Cung Le
  Zhu Zhu
  Pam Grier

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