The Man with the Iron Fistsanswers a question that someone out there has long pondered – can Wu-Tang Clan’s The RZA direct, score, star in and co-write a decent martial arts film? The answer is no.The story is one of the most ludicrous and convoluted offered in any film of recent years, so it’s unworthy of much attention. At its most basic level, the plot kick starts after the murder of a gang leader in a vaguely historical China. The leader’s vengeful son (Rick Yune), an immigrant blacksmith (RZA) and a playboy British envoy (Russell Crowe) all end up stuck in the middle of the gang war that ensues, localised around Jungle Village. This plot encompasses so many different factions and individuals its impossible to care about who is who, or why they just disembowelled that other guy. An over prominent voiceover by Mr. ZA himself plays over proceedings. The film was co-scripted by Eli Roth, so take that as a warning / recommendation as per your personal opinion of the man.
The multi-tasking helmer has a deep affection for kung-fu action, having clearly studied everything from the Shaw Brothers’ classics to his old collaborator Quentin Tarantino’s (here serving as off-screen ‘presenter’) reinterpretations of cheesy B-Movies. There are times when this threatens to become a convincing homage to the same – whether it’s the gloriously multi-coloured sets, pitch-perfect retro titles or the cameos from cult genre icons.
Alas, aesthetically the film is an absolute mess, and not just the liberal spilling of CGI blood and guts. The fight scenes lack any sense of spatial awareness or energy, even though the film’s more fantastical elements add a distinctive twist to the combat (there is indeed a man whose fists are iron). The cinematography fails to take advantage of the rich sets or beautiful Chinese locations. The disparate influences of the soundtrack – hip-hop beats, orchestral numbers and the occasional Oriental-infused composition – fail to gel together into a coherent whole.
The editing, though, is the most infuriating problem of all. The film is so excitedly cut together that it feels like we’re enduring a feature-length montage. The average shot-length can’t be more than a couple of seconds. The pacing is therefore exhausting, and the rapid cutting further damages the already uninspiring setpieces. During the film’s climactic battle scene, for example, Yune’s character ends up in a hall of mirrors against a hidden opponent. It looks as if we’re about to get the film’s action payoff in a visually magnificent setting. Alas, after around twenty seconds it cuts to an entirely different and much less interesting scene. Every time the film appears to be taking flight, the editing ensures it comes crashing down again.
The acting is a mixed bag. The decision to shoot an English language film with a predominantly Chinese cast is a strange one – while the dialogue is still undeniably stilted, the ensemble do fare better than the Japanese cast of Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django did. RZA is an uncharismatic lead. Lucy Liu appears as little more than O-Ren Ishii Redux. Russell Crowe has a lot of fun hamming it up. It’s not a great performance by any stretch, but we’ll let him away with having a blast.
The Man with the Iron Fists just doesn’t come together. Not funny enough to work as a satire, not slick enough to be a worthy genre entry in its own right, the film feels careless and haphazard. A missed opportunity.
Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
The Man with the Iron Fists is released on 7th December 2012