The Man With The Iron Fists
Release Date: Nov 02, 12
It was pretty much inevitable that sooner or later one of the Wu-Tang Clan would make a chopsocky kung-fu film. Since Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) turned hip-hop on its ear in the mid-90s, the influence of martial arts cinema (with its tales of honor and brotherhood railing against violence, corruption and poverty) on their music was so prevalent that the RZA’s directorial debut The Man With The Iron Fists feels less like a continual expansion of the Wu empire than the full realization of the dream inherent in so much of their music. And RZA, long-time architect of some of the Clan’s best material, is the most suited to bring that vision to life, in the process making a film that deftly nods to the hokier punchlines of the genre while fully proving his status as a true scholar of the medium.
In addition to directing the film, and co-writing with Eli Roth, RZA also stars as the Blacksmith, a quiet man in the semi-rural Jungle Village whose metallurgic skills are unmatched. The local clans, all living in an uneasy stalemate, turn to him for their weapons, each of which is capable of countering another clan’s armaments like a blood-soaked game of rock/paper/scissors. When the treacherous Silver Lion (Byron Mann) betrays the Lion Clan’s leader and stages a coup d’etat, the balance of the village is cast into chaos. This is exacerbated by a coming shipment of gold bullion from the Emperor, about which word quickly spreads, leading the clans to prepare themselves for total war. In the midst of all this, the Blacksmith struggles to secretly squirrel away enough money to purchase his beloved Lady Silk’s (Jamie Chung) freedom from the Pink Blossom, the local brothel. When the battle finally arrives, he finds allies in Zen Yi (Rick Yune), the deposed son of the fallen Lion Clan leader, and in Jack Knife (Russell Crowe, clearly having a ball), a shadowy Englishman who enjoys his vices in plenty but proves adept with a large blade.
For all the intersecting stories the film juggles (the above description doesn’t even touch on Lucy Liu as the seductive madam of the Pink Blossom, or former WWE star Dave Bautista as a man whose body proves usefully impervious to most weapons, among others), RZA proves a skilled hand at keeping Iron Fists considerably more coherent than most of the films that clearly influenced it, due in part to the well-handled narration throughout. The film also boasts no shortage of visceral gore, with some of the most joyously overcooked CGI bloodshed since Ninja Assassin contributing to the old-school vibe that the whole film carries. The violence still hits hard, though, with everything from disembowelment to forcible amputation to a very creative use of a water wheel used to break bodies throughout. The whole film is so well-made and so fluidly paced that even in the big finale, in which four different battles unfold simultaneously, the hand-to-hand combat never becomes dull or deafening.
RZA gets a huge assist from his all-in cast as well. Virtually everybody in the film knows exactly the right balance of camp and honest reverence to play in order to stop the film from spiraling into hokey territory. Liu, in particular, gives her best turn since her similar role in Kill Bill Vol. 1, swaggering through her domain with the knowledge that she could readily kill anybody in the room if needed. Special credit is also owed to Mann, who gives Silver Lion a cocksure power with a twinge of fey mannerisms that make him a thoroughly memorable antagonist. RZA exudes a quiet, powerful dignity that recalls David Carradine’s peaceable road warrior from Kung Fu, in the best possible way. The Man With The Iron Fists is packed to the brim with such references and allusions, right down to its opening and closing titles. It is one of the rarest varieties of homage, one so meticulously crafted in the image of its predecessors that it becomes a capable entry into the canon in its own right.