I dated a man in college who happened to be an enormous fan of the kung fu genre. You know the films – Supercop, Mr. Nice Guy, Who Am I? – the kind of marital arts movies that combined the graphic violence with humor and emotion, that tried to add plot amidst the fighting. Before I’d met that guy, I hadn’t seen Jackie Chan in anything other than Rush Hour. If it hadn’t been for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I’d have had no clue who Michelle Yeoh was. But that relationship, while in itself not entirely worthwhile, gave me an appreciation for a genre of film I’d previously been ignorant of and in which I had little, if any, interest. Even now, I have to admit I haven’t seen more than a few kung fu films made before the ’90s and I am by no means a connoisseur of the genre. But I can recognize good from bad and for those of you who have interest, The Man With The Iron Fists is some wicked good fun.
It comes to us from Rza, the leader of the Wu Tang Clan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eli Roth, both directed and starred in it, and wrote the music for its soundtrack. Yes, this film is a project near and dear to his heart and after watching the first few minutes alone, it is abundantly clear that Rza, unlike myself, harbors a deep and passionate love for this genre. The attention to detail from the costumes to the set design, the weaponry and artfully choreographed fighting to all the bloody carnage, is testament to Rza’s lifelong love of a genre of film that has fallen out of style. His flick, his dotingly cared-for baby, is nothing short of an homage.
Which isn’t to say that it’s perfect. The plot revolves around a nameless blacksmith (Rza) who begrudgingly makes weapons for the Lion Clan, a band of violent offenders led by Gold Lion. Gold Lion is murdered by his second-in-command, Silver Lion (Byron Mann), a remorseless, power-hungry brute after the cache of gold that has also drawn the attention of the local brothel’s Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu), the rivals Wolf Clan and Gemini Clan and a rogue British soldier, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe). Rza’s blacksmith wants nothing more than to save enough money to flee the violent village with his love, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), one of Madame Blossom’s coveted girls. Mann and Liu give fun, engaged performances but the real stand out here comes at the more than capable hands of Russell Crowe. Crowe’s Jack Knife has an insatiable sexual appetite matched only by his appetite for destruction. He is a joy to watch – seemingly having as much fun playing the role as you will watching him at it. His witty dialogue is delivered with as much ease as his brutality towards his opponents, his confidence in the bedroom while delighting nearly all of Madame Blossom’s girls mirrors that which he displays while gutting his enemies. I honestly can’t remember having seen Russell Crowe this mesmerizing to watch since 2000’s Gladiator.
At the complete opposite end of the acting spectrum, you’ll find Rza, who couldn’t muster one shred of emotion at any point during his performance. His talents as a musician, writer and director far exceed any he may have as an actor. His is the weakest performance in the film. At times, it does take away from the story, giving moments that should be intensely emotional an empty, hollow feel impossible to ignore. I couldn’t help but think that if a more capable actor had played Rza’s blacksmith, the film could have been much more than simply entertaining.
All in all, I recommend The Man With The Iron Fists. It is a fast-paced, chaotic, delightfully violent film full of mayhem and whip-smart dialogue. It may be a bit shallow, its attempts at the deeply emotional falling flat due mostly to Rza’s wooden performance, but otherwise enjoyable. What it lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in the talent of the supporting cast, the killer soundtrack and the spectacular fighting.