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The Man With The Iron Fists

Dir: RZA. US. 2012. 95mins

An homage to old-school kung fu movies that ends up being more fun in theory than it is on the screen, The Man With The Iron Fists boasts some giddy, bloody action sequences and a whole lot of dull genre clichés the rest of the time. The directorial debut of RZA, the visionary force behind the seminal hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan, will appeal to hardcore action junkies, but anyone who’s not already on the wavelength of this silly pulp trash won’t find much here to draw them in.

Iron Fists often resides in an awkward middle ground between straight homage and cheeky, self-conscious send-up.

Opening November 2, The Man With The Iron Fists stars Russell Crowe, a sturdy but by no means sure-fire commercial draw. Universal will also be hoping to lure audiences who appreciate the B-movie influences pulsing through the work of Quentin Tarantino, whose Kill Bill RZA scored. (Indeed, Tarantino receives a “Presented By” credit on Iron Fists, a stamp of approval that should help attract his fans.) For one week, Iron Fists won’t have much competition for the action crowd — but that will all change next week, however, when Skyfall arrives in the States, presumably obliterating all in its path.

The Man With The Iron Fists is ostensibly set in 19th century China in a small community called Jungle Village but, really, the movie lives in the shadow of old martial-arts flicks with their melodramatic plotting and vigorous fight scenes. RZA plays a nameless blacksmith who teams up with Jack Knife (Crowe), a charming mercenary, to do battle against Silver Lion (Byron Mann), a corrupt, bloodthirsty soldier who’s about to put his hands on a great sum of stolen gold. 

Prior to directing, co-writing and starring in Iron Fists, RZA had done some acting — including two films with Crowe (The Next Three Days and American Gangster) — as well as film scoring. Fans of Kill Bill, particularly the first volume, will probably take a shine to RZA’s sincere melding of kung fu mayhem with a few tenets of the spaghetti Western. But unlike Tarantino, who draws from his influences and then twists them into crafty new hybrids, RZA is largely reverent to his sources, which is perhaps surprising considering that Wu-Tang Clan’s music often sampled dialogue from chop-socky flicks, giving them a newfound steely resonance in the process.

Consequently, Iron Fists often resides in an awkward middle ground between straight homage and cheeky, self-conscious send-up. The film’s knowingly archetypal heroes and villains — not to mention the fact that some characters have groan-worthy names like Jack Knife — suggests that RZA and his co-writer, Tarantino colleague Eli Roth, are having a little fun with genre conventions, but the storytelling and a lot of the performances are so humdrum that it can be difficult to enjoy the movie beyond a theoretical exercise. (This is most noticeable in RZA’s performance, which is too muted to connect. No doubt he’s trying for a mystical, taciturn vibe, but he doesn’t have the onscreen presence to suggest levels beneath his dour surface.)  

Much more pleasurable is Crowe’s easygoing turn as the lovable rogue Jack. After years of playing heroes, the actor seems relish his opportunity to be a randy bastard, and he provides enough gravitas to the role to offset the occasional winking at the camera that’s perhaps inevitable. Still, let it be said that for a star who’s occasionally criticised for his humourlessness, this is one of his more delightful, likable turns.

Additionally, while the film’s story never catches fire, it does lead to a pretty propulsive third act in which dull characterizations give way to a mammoth, enveloping action sequence. Guided by veteran fight choreographer Corey Yuen, Iron Fists is always at its best when its characters are flying through the air in battle with one another, and if RZA occasionally overdoes the gory carnage, at least it has a spark that the rest of the film lacks.

For years, RZA has built his reputation on his sterling production talents, which have birthed spooky, skeletal hip-hop songs that have felt weary and soulful in a way that a lot of contemporary rap doesn’t. Considering what a musical original he is, it’s a bit disappointing that his Iron Fists doesn’t deliver the same punch.

Production companies: Strike Entertainment, Arcade Pictures

Domestic distribution: Universal Pictures, www.universalpictures.com

Producers: Marc Abraham, Eric Newman, Eli Roth

Executive producers: Tom Karnowski, Thomas A. Bliss, Kristel Laiblin, Doris Tse

Screenplay: The RZA and Eli Roth, story by RZA

Cinematography: Chan Chi Ying

Production design: Drew Boughton

Editor: Joe D’Augustine

Music: RZA, Howard Drossin

Website: www.ironfists.com

Cast: Russell Crowe, Cung Le, Lucy Liu, Byron Mann, RZA, Rick Yune, David Bautista, Jamie Chung

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