Just because you really love a certain type of movie doesn’t mean you can make that kind of movie. It’s a common conceit in cult movie circles that being a “true fan” of something allows you to tap into a wellspring of secret knowledge that prepares you for the job of making a film. The real truth is that it takes much more than just fannish devotion. You need writing skills, a good eye, the ability to work with actors… the list goes on and on. You can’t just will yourself into being a filmmaker by cinema-love alone.
The Man With The Iron Fists is a testament to these often hard-to-face truths. It was masterminded by RZA, a hip-hop icon who is legendary for his knowledge and devotion to old-school martial arts cinema. That passion has informed his music over the years and this film represents an attempt for the student to become a master in the cinematic realm. Unfortunately, the results show that the student still has much to learn.
The problems begin with the plot, which is as disjointed as it is overloaded. The scenario, concocted by RZA with the help of Eli Roth, is set in a Chinese town known as Jungle Village. RZA plays Blacksmith, a man who is skilled at creating elaborate weapons. Those skills make him an in-demand item as there is a lot of intrigue going on around him: Silver Lion (Byron Mann) has betrayed his master and overtaken the Lion Clan with an eye towards stealing some government gold. The son of the former master, Zen Yi (Rick Yune), vows revenge and heads for Jungle Village. At the same time, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), a British mercenary with mysterious purposes, comes to town as if waiting for something to occur.
As for Blacksmith, all he wants is to leave his life of weapon-making. He’s in love with Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a courtesan who works in a bordello run by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). He is working towards buying Lady Silk’s freedom when he sees Zen Yi about to be killed by Silver Lion’s men. He decides to help him and thus endangers his own life. He pays a terrible price for his kindness and decides to forge a special weapon for himself so he can team up with the other rebels to take down Silver Lion.
That plot may sound coherent on paper but it doesn’t play out that way on celluloid. Rumor has it that RZA’s first cut of The Man With The Iron Fists ran nearly four hours – and the 95 minute cut that made it to theaters is a shambling mess. The first half is a dizzying array of character introductions and hamfisted plotting that is patched together with the worst, most on-the-nose voiceover narration you’ve heard in years. The Blacksmith character barely plays a role at all in the first half, with the film allowing him to be overshadowed until the last 30 minutes. The fights are well choreographed by veteran Corey Yuen but poorly staged from a visual standpoint and cut together in a clumsy manner that has none of the grace of the vintage kung fu films that this effort clearly aspires to emulate. The production design and the Chinese locations are gorgeous but that’s not enough to carry a movie.
RZA also has serious problems directing his cast, whose performances are all over the map. Crowe and Liu fare the best: he hams it up in a Richard Burton/Oliver Reed/Richard Harris sort of way, using charisma to overpower weak material, while Liu does a sturdy replay of her O-Ren Ishii role from Kill Bill Vol. 1. Mann overacts hideously, assaulting the audience with endless displays of mugging and self-consciously camp dialogue delivery, while Chung does the best she can with a negligible role that require her to be either background scenery or a plot point depending on the scene in question.
RZA delivers the least impressive performance, which is odd as he has built up a decent side-career as a character actor prior to this film. Here, he seems dazed and sheepish, almost like he is distracted by his other duties on the film. His shocking lack of comfort in front of the camera makes him stand out like a sore thumb. He certainly doesn’t look like he is realizing a lifelong dream.
In short, The Man With The Iron Fists is a lifeless, hopelessly muddled exercise in the kung-fu genre. It’s obvious that RZA’s heart is in the right place – but that’s just not enough to make a movie function properly. His work here is so overwhelmed by the basic duties of screen storytelling that it forgets to have style or heart. Only time will tell if he can translate his love of martial arts cinema into the skills to make it well.