I’m glad some viewers, including our own Witney Seibold, liked The Man with the Iron Fists. I didn’t think it was very good, but if it gets more people interested in classic Kung Fu movies then that’s still a win. And Iron Fists is fun. It’s not boring. It’s just a mess and edited choppily so even the cool fight scenes are a little ugly to watch. Perhaps, even with the help of Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino, Man with the Iron Fists still looks like a rapper’s directorial debut.
RZA mentioned a four-hour rough cut of the film, which sparked fantasies about what might have been deleted from the 96-minute theatrical release. I know that four hours is an assembly. It’s not finished scenes that would flow in a four-hour narrative. The Blu-ray includes an extended cut that is 108 minutes, and 12 minutes added to any movie is not insignificant, so I was interested to see whether the extended cut on the Man with the Iron Fists Blu-ray would improve the film.
RZA plays a blacksmith (a black blacksmith? No, they don’t make that joke) in a Chinese village that seems to be ground zero for warring clans. Not only are different clans with different styles of martial arts and different supernatural powers terrorizing his village, but the British rogue Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) has strolled into town and camped out at Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu)’s brothel. When some bad guys chop off the blacksmith’s arms, he fashions some iron fists infused with his chi so he comes back stronger than ever. But how is he going to wipe with iron fists for the rest of his life? Those things are great for pounding bad guys, but they’ll rip right through turn of the century toilet paper.
I honestly could not tell what was added to the extended cut, so it certainly didn’t make any improvements. It isn’t the blood and gore because it was already R-rated. I did look at the clock though, so it’s definitely 12 minutes longer. There’s 12 extra minutes somewhere in here.
The story is imaginative and creates a lot of unique characters. Clans based on animals are of course traditional, so Lion Clan feels right at home in a Shaw Brothers-inspired historical epic. Even characters in one scene get interesting backstories and characterization. Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) has cool armor with special hidden weapons. The Gemini Killers (Grace Huang and Andrew Lin) have other, different hidden weapons. The fights just feel more like series of cool moves than a visual narrative of combat.
When different combinations of these opponents face off, they have interesting permutations of strengths and weaknesses in play. Brass Body (Dave Bautista) actually has a brass body, so Iron Fists are the only power that stands a chance against him.
The editing still looks choppy to me, but that could be more of a Corey Yuen thing than a RZA thing. I generally find Corey Yuen’s fight choreography less cohesive than those by Yuen Woo-ping. He does some awesome work, and who could forget the fight scene from Fong Sai-Yuk where Jet Li and his opponent are standing on the onlookers’ heads? I just find his scenes more like highlight showcases than dramatically building narratives of combat.
A big narrative problem for the film is that the blacksmith is only a minor character for about the first 50 minutes. He narrates, but shows up once or twice, yet really he’s the protagonist of the movie. We just don’t find that out until he becomes the iron-fisted man of the title (not the titular “Man with the Iron Fists”). He’s made weapons for most of the film’s battling characters, but we’re more invested in Zen-Yi, Silver Lion or even Jack Knife at this point, and even they are clearly memorable supporting characters, not protagonists.
There’s a lot of stuff in The Man with the Iron Fists and I admire the ambition, nay, the sheer balls to shove all stuff that into a studio movie. If the fights were amazing, it would be enough, or if the story were more epic than convoluted, that would be enough, but as it stands we’ve simply got a worthwhile effort.
The Blu-ray looks awesome. All the detail in the sets and costumes are perfectly clear. Even the most lovingly restored Shaw Brothers movies, and there are some excellent Blu-rays, can’t show quite this much detail and color. You can see every scar on a fighter, every bead of sweat, every drop of blood. It’s also beautiful. The brothel is a lovely set full of lovely women in lovely costumes, overwhelmingly pink in the pinkest HD pink Blu-ray can offer. The Golden palace and tattoo parlors shine brightly and even a black and white flashback has gold highlights. Natural backdrops on location in China look more impressive than any special effect. It looks like Shaw Brothers, only crisper and cleaner.
A series of further deleted scenes provides a lot more than the extended cut’s vague additions. Extended backstory on several characters is shown, making their roles in the ensemble more epic, though it is just exposition. I’m not thinking anyone would benefit from the four-hour assembly cut, or even a two-hour extended-extended cut. Interestingly, the first deleted sequence is subtitled even though they are speaking English, but it highlights how the actors don’t always say all the words in the sentence. Maybe that’s why it got deleted. The wires are left in on some shots too.
The other bonus features are surprisingly light, just a series of featurettes no longer than two minutes each, and most only around a minute. That’s okay with me. I probably wouldn’t be interested in exploring this movie any more deeply personally, but I’m surprised The RZA wasn’t more involved for his passion project. He didn’t even record a commentary.
After two viewings and additional deleted scenes, I’m willing to cut The Man with the Iron Fists a little slack. It’s got enough fun and creativity to just go with it, but it could have been the ultimate kung fu movie with a little extra work.
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.