I apologize in advance for yet again hammering away at the word “awesome,” but for this film, it seems warranted. The RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists was just as awesome as I hoped it would be. It’s a visual blender of every kung-fu flick that The RZA has ever seen (which I’m guessing is many) combined with blaxploitation elements, revenge tropes, and even a few straightforward superhero conceits. It’s a wild mash-up of ultra-violent fights between outlandish characters who are defined largely by the exotic weapons they carry, and their signature kung fu personae. The characters are arranged less by their tragic or dramatic plotlines (and this film has many, many plotlines), and more according to the rules of a one-on-one fighting video game. By the film’s finale, dozens of people are flying through the air, flinging knives, swords, and various blunt objects at one another in a swirling miasma of violent awesomeness. The Man with the Iron Fists goes for broke. I, for one, appreciate that.
It’s no wonder that this film was produced by Quentin Tarantino, who did something similar with his own Kill Bill. The Man with the Iron Fists, though, unlike its stylistic forebear, seems to play less as an homage to very specific kung-fu flicks from the ‘60s and ‘70s (there are online rundowns of every single visual reference in Kill Bill), and more like a modern tribute to kung fu flicks. In a way, Iron Fists take a bolder step than most action films, trying to update a moribund genre with big steaming scoops of ridiculous awesomeness. It occupies a middle ground between the ‘70s-obsessed eye of Tarantino, and the bold magical silliness of Big Trouble in Little China.
The various stories are tricky to follow. We live in a fantasy China, in a mixed-up period of time that could be anywhere during the Qin Dynasty. And while the various Chinese clans (at eternal war, natch) seem to be in the distant past, there is also a freed American slave, and a British soldier from The Queen’s army (I’m guessing Queen Victoria). Maybe the action is about 1860. Anyway, to the players: There’s the violent Silver Lion (Byron Mann) who has recently usurped the throne from Gold Lion (Kuan Tai Chen), and who is leading the Lion Clan on a violent conquest of the remaining lands. There is the vengeful Zen-Yi (Rick Yune), also known as The X-Blade, who travels the land is a switchblade suit (blades pop out of his shoulders, his back, his feet, etc.) seeking revenge on the man who killed his wife. There is Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu) who runs a well-maintained brothel, one of the best in the world, and harbors secret violent plans of her own. There is the dandyish Brit Jack Knife (Russell Crowe, seriously) who seems to have no plan. There’s the local unnamed blacksmith (The RZA of The Wu-Tang Clan) a freed slave who can make expert bizarro weapons for all the warring clans, and who will serve as the film’s narrator. He is dating a sexy courtesan named Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), who works for Madam Blossom. It will be he who eventually becomes the titular iron-fisted man. Oh yes, and there’s something to do with the Emperor’s huge store of gold which is, for reasons I don’t rightly recall, being transported around the country, protected by a twin brother and sister superwarrior pair who call themselves The Gemini (Grace Huang and Andrew Lin).
Oh yes, and I forgot to mention the cameo by Pam Grier, and the big guy named Brass Body (Dave Bautista) who can turn his skin into brass. And the guy named Crazy Hippo.
I suppose the convoluted stories are yet another homage to kung fu films of yore, which typically had unrevealed revenge plots, and last-minute turn-arounds as mere set-ups to the testicle-numbing action scenes. It’s clear that The RZA is a fan of kung fu flicks (the kung fu film aesthetic has lent very heavily into most actions of The Wu-Tang Clan, starting way back with their 1993 debut record), and, with the enthusiasm of a teenager, has made a chop-socky (although often a bit confusing and sloppy) love letter to this own interests. As a director, The RZA is fine. Although I suspect he was heavily coached by both Tarantino and his co-screenwriter Eli Roth.
Sumptuously visual, endearingly clunky, and undeniably awesome, The Man with the Iron Fists swings for the walls.