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November 6, 2012

RZA’s martial arts homage, beaten to a pulp fiction


Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Have you ever had a cat that really enjoyed treating you with dead things? You’d come home and outside your door would be the remains of a small woodland creature and next to it would be your cat, looking really pleased with itself. The Man with the Iron Fists, the directorial debut of Wu-Tang Clan member RZA, is the movie equivalent of that dead creature: it’s off-putting and certainly not ideal, but it’s delivered with such earnest zeal and determination that you can’t help but feel weirdly grateful for it.

The Man with the Iron Fists opens in 19th century China in a place called Jungle Village, which is presumably named as such because it is overrun by a bunch of warring clans named after animals, like the Lions and the Hyenas. At its heart is a blacksmith known only as Blacksmith (RZA), who lives a simple life making weapons for questionable characters. With the money he’s saved, he hopes he’ll be able to spring his lover, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), from the local brothel and bounce before shit hits the fan for good. Too little, too late, though, since a war-bound load of the emperor’s gold is due for a pit stop in Jungle Village on its way north, and a slew of money-hungry mercenaries is looking for a piece of the golden pie.

If that sounds straightforward, don’t be fooled: in the first ten minutes alone, the script, written by RZA and Eli Roth, introduces us to no fewer than a dozen warriors (each helpfully named after inanimate objects, like Gold, Bronze, and Silver) and then proceeds to kill half of them off. Characters come and go at the speed of blood gushing out of a sliced artery, always with little precedence and even less development. Motivations are never clear, but really, do they have to be? RZA has lined up an incredible slate of talent, who, even if they aren’t around for long, all seem to be having a great time. In his homage to the Shaw Brothers and campy, exploitative martial arts flicks in general, RZA gets this right most of all: the unapologetic, honest dose of fun that is absent in far too many movies produced nowadays. And in many ways, this compensates for all he does wrong (because trust me, there’s a lot wrong).

Fight scenes are methodically and thoughtfully staged (we get three major, simultaneous battles all in one insanely-paced climax) yet filmed almost as if the actual action were an afterthought. As opposed to settling in and letting the pros kick their due ass, RZA opts for quick cuts and frenetic perspective shifts. We’re so close to the action that, in the end, we can’t actually see any of it. In fact, throughout the whole film I felt the pressing urge to travel back in time, find RZA on location in Shanghai, and tell him that, yes, he is indeed allowed to zoom out from frame to frame. Sets are lushly colored and gorgeously built—the Pink Blossom, a brothel owned by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), is particularly stunning—but we never get to see them in their entireties, because the frame is perpetually close-cropped on a small part of the scene. It’s the film’s most frustrating and unforgivable flaw. All the pieces for a bloody good time are in place; we’re just not allowed to see them.

While I was straining my eyes to see whose arm had just been hacked off, at least my ears were happy. RZA scored the film himself with Howard Drossin, and then compiled an amazing soundtrack on top of it that includes music from The Black Keys, Kanye West, and, of course, re-orchestrated Wu-Tang classics. Not to mention the dialogue, which birthed one of my favorite one-liners ever, thanks to the Silver Lion (Byron Mann): “Friends, there is really no need for your journey to end here, and by that I mean your life journey!” It’s the worst, but also the best.

And truly, that’s the dynamic at play here. Technically, The Man with the Iron Fists is a sloppy mess. RZA’s Blacksmith moves through the film with tired eyes and an overall soporific demeanor. Half the time I felt like I needed subtitles to understand what he was saying (because RZA is also the film’s narrator). Limbs are more often dismembered than not and blood is constantly gushing, but it’s all curiously non-corporeal. Despite being firmly set in the exploitation genre, The Man with the Iron Fists is never cruel. In one scene, the film flashes back to the Blacksmith’s past, where his mother, a slave (played by the amazing Pam Grier), is negotiating his freedom; in another, Russell Crowe’s rogue British soldier is pulling anal beads out of a prostitute’s bottom with his teeth. It is what it is, with no qualms or excuses. And for me at least, that’s the best part of all.

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