The Man with the Iron Fists: Exactly as awesome as you think it will be

When I first heard about The Man with the Iron Fists, RZA’s loving tribute to the Saturday afternoon Kung fu flicks of his youth, I was incredibly excited.  Then I started seeing the reviews come in and my excitement admittedly waned a little bit.  Literally seconds after the film started to roll, however, I realized why it’s important to never let that kind of thing deter me from my initial instincts.  Most film critics today–the good ones, not the ones writing for the DVD cover–are where they’re at now primarily out of a love for art films, and the undeniable classics of Hollywood’s golden age.  Today’s directors though–again, the good ones–are where they’re at largely due to genre films, particularly those of the  lush cinematic landscape that was the 1970’s.  This has created an unfortunate system where one side is not always picking up what the other’s laying down.

Like Machete, Grindhouse, Jackie Brown, and The Devil’s Rejects, this is a carefully crafted love letter to a very specific time and place in film history.  They’re all modernized of course, and granted a level of polish not available to their forefathers; technology has gone too far to ever really go back.  But beneath that expensive gloss coat all the pieces are there.  Every elaborate and improbable weapon shown onscreen, from gunblades to a suit made of knives, is the product of hundreds of cinematic weapons before it, Bruce Lee’s famous nunchaku extrapolated out to the nth degree.  Similarly, larger than life characters with names like Crazy Hippo and Brass Body carry a mystique and a sense of history that the audience is never explicitly shown, but still feels.

There’s a large quantity of gold driving the film’s plot along, but the main focus is RZA’s character, a blacksmith with a mysterious past, reluctantly forging weapons to provide a future for himself and his girlfriend Lady Silk (Sucker Punch‘s Jamie Chung), who is currently in the employ of a high-end brothel.  In addition to providing much of the arsenal on display, this blacksmith also supplies the narration, probably my only real complaint with this movie.  Rumor has it that the runtime of the film was cut down from something like four hours to a brisk 90 minutes, so the narration may have been necessary to stitch the plot together.  I’d argue that the plot (primarily money and revenge) was simple enough that it didn’t need stitched together any further, and 90% of film narration feels like a crutch.  Nevertheless, the narration is there, and it’s sometimes good, sometimes bad.

The primary villain is Silver Lion (Byron Mann, Ryu from the Van Damme Street Fighter movie!), head of the Lion Clan after secretly having his father Gold Lion killed in an effort to get the aforementioned gold.  He’s backed up by the mysterious and instantly deadly Poison Dagger, as well as Brass Body (former pro wrestler David Bautista), a hulking giant whose skin can turn to invulnerable metal.  Fighting alongside RZA’s blacksmith are Zen Yi (Ninja Assassin‘s Rick Yune), also known as The X-Blade, as well as Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), an Englishman whose principal interests seem to be prostitutes, knives, and liquor, but who also possesses the film’s token heart of gold.  In the middle is brothel owner Madam Blossom, who is more or less Lucy Liu playing Lucy Liu, but she does a good job of it.  If it weren’t for the two century or so timeline difference, I’d assume this was simply the backstory of her character from Kill Bill.   Speaking of Kill Bill, Kung fu mainstay Gordon Liu has a cameo here, in addition to a few other genre legends like Kuan Tai Chen (7 Man Army, Crippled Avengers), and Pam Grier even shows up for good measure.

The plot, as I’ve said before, is pretty uninspired, but that’s hardly the point.  The meat of the Kung fu genre is the combat, and the fight scenes here are mostly put together pretty well, being the work of largely the same crew responsible for (you guessed it) Kill Bill.  There’s some nice wire work, and the weaponry used is pretty exciting across the board.  I have a love-hate relationship with CGI bloodspray, which this film uses almost exclusively.  It’s always incredibly obvious, and although it’s done well here, knowing that the practical effects were handled by legends Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, it would have been cool to see less reliance on digital techniques.  Overall though the fights are solid, a nice middle ground between the limitations of 70’s stunt work and the over-the-top ridiculous treetop ballet of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Further aiding these scenes is an incredibly solid soundtrack featuring, as one might expect, a liberal dose of Wu-Tang, but also other artists such as The Black Keys and Mable John. RZA’s talents as a composer are considerable, as seen in movies such as Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, and he’s equally adept at choosing a wide variety of music that, while not period accurate, definitely fits the overall mood of the picture.

The intro to The Man with the Iron Fists plays much like Grindhouse and Machete: it’s a full-on technicolor genre tribute complete with bad sound and excessive scratches.  Unlike those titles though, the overt retro effect stops here when the film starts for real, but it still serves as a mental cue for the audience: you are watching a callback to a bygone age.  Most dialogue for the Asian characters is delivered in a style clearly modeled after the over-the-top English audio dubs of the ’70’s, yet I still see critics chalking that up to bad acting rather than a stylistic choice.  Maybe this is the line where a film crosses over from homage to in-joke?  Personally I love it, and I think fans of the genre will love it, but it seems to be exposing the limitations of a lot of critics out there.  If your initial response to learning that the RZA was making an old-school Kung fu flick was “This is going to be awesome”, stick to that instinct and don’t let anybody talk you out of it.  You’ll have fun with this one.

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About Ryan Searles

I like watching movies, and then talking about those movies. Sometimes I write things about them, which you should read. Other interests include boxed wine, video games, the works of Harlan Ellison and HG Wells, and being a general curmudgeon.

Posted on November 9, 2012, in Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Does sound like an awesome movie. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • I must add two things:

      1.) Great photos!
      2.) Jack Knife’s gun-knife-drill is a work of art.

      Otherwise, your spot-on review really brings out the reason why this movie is so good. Criticism typically is a negative, shotty enterprise. When you can comment on something in such a way to inspire them to see it, or show them what light they should use when viewing it, that’s when criticism (and reviewing itself) becomes an art of its own. Parents just wouldn’t understand.

  2. Sounds like my kind of flick. Nice review.

  1. Pingback: The Man with the Iron Fists Soundtrack: Uneasy Mix of Hip Hop « A Nerd Occurrence

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