The Man With The Iron Fists

The Man With The Iron Fists

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

A dream project for Wu Tang mastermind RZA - with notable guidance from co-writer Eli Roth and exec producer Quentin Tarantino - this kung fu homage works an Eastern grind-house aesthetic to crowd-pleasing effect. Almost like a less overtly comedic Black Dynamite, it evidences RZA's love for his genre in every opulent frame, and even the niggling faults peppered throughout can be attributed to his attempt to stay faithful to the spirit of the Shaw Bros' Seventies classics. With rum support from a delightful Russell Crowe and a plethora of awesome Asian performers, the late night crowd who loved Machete should lap this up too even if the mainstream will most likely fail to see what the fuss is all about.

In the Asian backwater of Jungle Village, a deadly war is brewing between the mutinous Lion clan and Zen Yi, the brother of the master they've slain. Caught in the middle is an African American blacksmith who only wants to make enough money to elope with his prostitute lover. Feeling regretful for having fashioned the weapons that started the war, he rescues the mortally wounded Li and finds himself having to join forces with a mysterious Englishman whose motives remain unclear. When the Lions catch up with the blacksmith though, his agenda becomes personal, leading to a showdown between the two sides that will determine the village's fate.

Copy picture

An excellent credit sequence gives a taste of what's to come: ridiculous costumes, plush sets, fantastic wire-work fighting and bone-crunching violence. Once the dialogue starts flowing, it's obvious that the RZA has aimed for authenticity right down to the ropey acting and silly exchanges, but he could have gone further by using subtitles or dodgy dubbing; the Americanised Chinese characters sometimes hit bum notes where it's unclear if they're meant to satiric or merely moronic.

The action itself however is a joy to behold; anyone who loved the grand finale of Kill Bill Vol 1 will have a field day with this. The graceful ballet of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is also referenced, especially during a glorious midway bout featuring the Gemini clan, whose leaders use each other's bodies as weapons. The camerawork too is impressively accomplished, with all sorts of visual acrobatics complementing the action, although some overly showy comic-book editing sometimes proves distracting.

Gore-hounds will no doubt lap up the pulverising violence, with all manner of blood-letting and limb-lopping portrayed through a near-seamless mix of prosthetic work and CGI. Capping it all off is the RZA's score, with old Wu Tang faves like Shame On A Nigga given a new lick of orchestral paint while elsewhere he dabbles in classic kung fu strings, throbbing electro and beat-heavy rap - sometimes simultaneously. It's certainly a worthy continuation of his exceptional soundtrack work for the likes of Ghost Dog and Kill Bill, and even makes for a better Wu album than most of the Clan's recent efforts.

Sadly, the weakest link also lies with RZA himself. His gravelly narration is brilliantly laced with anachronistic slang, and he's definitely got certifiable screen presence - until he's called upon to actually act, that is. Aside from a few memorable one-liners, his delivery is stiff and overly serious where everyone else is playfully wooden and knowingly cheesy, while he just doesn't have the physicality to pull off his eventual evolution into an anvil-punching action hero. On the other hand, Russell Crowe has more fun than you'll have thought capable of him channeling Oliver Reed's sleazy piety from The Devils, while it's a pleasure to see the hugely charismatic Rick Yune in a significant support role. Bizarrely, Crowe and the RZA seem superfluous to the action for the majority of the film, only really becoming directly involved in the final reel; perhaps RZA realised his own limitations as an actor or just wanted to give the martial arts mayhem the main stage.

Again harking back to Kill Bill, Lucy Liu turns up as a brothel madame fatale, while there's a stylishly shot scene of various couplings that recalls the ridiculously OTT Sex & Zen series. Despite all the wanton violence and even though the women are given very little to do until the climax (poor Jamie Chung is wasted wallpaper as usual), this is a surprisingly good-natured experience; there's no nudity, little gratuitous sexual menace, and everyone keeps their tongue firmly planted in cheek. It all makes for a rollicking good time, and it's so slickly and affectionately put together that it's easy to forgive the occasional cringe-worthy moments and saggy mid-section.

A trio of satisfying final fights - including an especially effective spin on Enter The Dragon's hall of mirrors battle - won't quite bring the house down but do make for a solid ending to a hugely likable caper. Purists may scoff and anyone who's not in on the joke may be unamused but this is basically an old-school kid's flick for adults (it could actually have easily been tailored for kids themselves), overflowing with fan-appeasing tributes and loving detail. While his choreographer and cinematographer have obviously played a huge part in the process, the RZA shows enough chops as a director to make you eager to see what else he might turn his fists to in the future. Let's just hope he stays on the other side of the camera next time.

Reviewed on: 07 Dec 2012
Share this with others on...
A humble blacksmith must defend his village when the arrival of treasure hunters leads to trouble.
Amazon link

Director: RZA

Writer: Eli Roth, RZA

Starring: RZA, Russell Crowe, Cung Le, Lucy Liu, Rick Yune

Year: 2012

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Hong Kong

Festivals:


Search database: