Review: THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS Goes Direct to "Meh"

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

An awkward love letter to martial arts movies, The Man With the Iron Fists fills its running time with nearly every genre staple imaginable: spurting blood, severed limbs, poison darts, flying children, Buddhist training, bathing prostitutes, invincible villains covered in CGI armor, dialogue that sounds like it was translated badly from English into Chinese and then back into English by someone who speaks neither language and then dubbed into English by a non-native speaker. Oh, and Pam Grier.

Obviously, The RZA has a deep, wide knowledge of martial arts cinema -- for further proof, check out the excellent DVD audio commentary he did with Andy Klein for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin -- and, in making his directorial debut, he appears to have been intent on showcasing that knowledge with (what I'm sure he thought would be) a fabulous mixtape of moments inspired by the Shaw Brothers films and other classics of Hong Kong cinema. His knowledge, however, does not translate well into action on the silver screen.

The Man With the Iron Fists occasionally displays flashes of inspiration, most notably in a relatively brief sequence late in the film featuring Lucy Liu and her house of deadly, silken hookers, but it's too often merely a baffling oddity: not good enough to praise, not bad enough to dismiss entirely, and certainly not sufficiently fun-filled to enjoy for adherents of the "so bad it's good" school of thought. It falls into the middle ground as a "direct to meh" * movie.


Structurally, the story is a mess. The RZA provides the opening narration, in a soft-spoken voice that's nearly unintelligible. He plays a blacksmith in Jungle Village in late 19th Century China; he's in love with local prostitute Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) and kept busy making weapons for various feuding clans. But for the first part of the movie, the blacksmith is a bit player, and the absence of an apparent protagonist leaves the narrative rudderless.

In any event, a crisis is precipitated after the murder of Gold Lion, the head of the Lion Clan; his evil son Silver Lion (Byron Mann) assumes command after dispatching his brothers and declares war upon other clans, including the Wolf Clan and other clans named after animals. In the midst of the turmoil, a lone British soldier of fortune arrives at the brothel run by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). When he is challenged for the hand of a young hooker, the soldier rips open the abdomen of his fat challenger in the middle of the crowded brothel, and introduces himself to the stunned crowd: "My name is Mr. Knife! But you can call me Jack!"

Played by none other than Russell Crowe, Jack Knife would seem to be the movie's hero, but, no, he is too busy sexing up multiple whores and emptying bottles of alcohol to bother with any such boring subjects as plot mechanics. Well, then, what about Zen Yi, the X-Blade (Rick Yune)? He seems like a heroic type, always all serious and stolid and devoted to his lady love, but he's barely on screen for long stretches, and when he does show up, we're not exactly sure why, or what his purpose is for existing in this particular movie.

Eventually, the movie warms up to the idea of the blacksmith as the protagonist, and finally gets some forward momentum: once he gets his iron fists, we're positive he's the only one who can take on the fearsome Brass Body (Dave Bautista), the aforementioned invincible villain with CGI armor. Alas, the action sequences, even with choregraphy credited to the often masterful Corey Yuen, are so chopped up and confusing to watch that there's no joy in the bloodshed, which often appears to have been inserted from another, alternate universe.

Madam Blossom's brothel looks much like the House of Blue Leaves set from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, which reinforces the idea that Tarantino (who serves as executive producer) influenced The Man With the Iron Fists as much as the Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong cinema in general, and co-writer Eli Roth. Indeed, the movie feels like the string of Reservoir Dogs / Pulp Fiction tough-talkin' crime flicks that followed in the wake of Tarantino's twin success stories in the 90s -- only with martial arts.

Tarantino has certainly borrowed heavily from a multitude of genre films, but he's also managed to fuse his inspirations with his own distinctive (if imitative) worldview, something that The RZA has yet to do. The Man With the Iron Fists doesn't have enough of its own personality to warrant much more than a passing glance.


* From Urban Dictionary: "Meh: Indifference; to be used when one simply does not care."

The Man With the Iron Fists opened wide in North American theaters on Friday, November 2.

Around the Internet:
  • and "fought on screen before" isn't going to make me consider Lucy Liu, Will Yune or Byron Mann as martial artists.

  • jah p

    I do agree about the pacing problems with this film. Visually I thought the movie was top notch, but way too much wire work, dialogue was silly at times, I'm thankful that Crowe and Lui was in this to bring some credibility to the movie. Towards the end, I felt the movie ventured far into "Kung Fu Hustle" territory, all the way down to the final fight which was a disappointment. Overall, I gave the RZA a C+ for his vision, handling all of the characters involved and the challenging aspect of managing two chairs of acting and directing.

  • pimp

    the fight scene where excellent the reviewer must have been doped up.

  • No, pimp, I was not doped up. Out of sincere interest, how do *you* define an "excellent" fight scene?

  • VyceVictus

    It seemed to me that the worst part of the fight scenes were that the camera was too close to the actors and you couldnt see their full acrobatics. But through all the choppy edits I could definitely see the physical skill on display.

  • MarsHottentot

    Maybe someone doped you, Peter. You never know, it's a crazy world out there!

  • That's a real shame, although I can't say I'm surprised. While I still plan to see it (I do love me some Wu-Tang), it's good to have reasonable expectations. How was the music?

  • jah p

    First off I love Wu-Tang, but the music used in most of the film was a distraction.

  • The musical score has some good, twangy, Ennio Morricone moments; it's kind of like the movie as a whole: OK.

  • I would guess the editing has a lot to do with almost non of the cast being martial artists, so there are probably a lot of doubles to obscure or simple move to "punch up".

  • VyceVictus

    What?, like Jah replied, probably the only one in that movie who hasn't fought on screen was RZA himself. This is just people making shit up to shit on this movie for who knows why.

  • jah p

    No Daniel, stay for the credits...I would say 90% of the characters in this movie have a martial arts background...and keep in mind, this movie was supposed to be in 2 parts, so I think the way they edited it felt a bit rushed...

  • When was this ever supposed to be in two parts? I've never heard that at all, Google turns up nothing, and the (very detailed) Wikipedia page also doesn't mention that at all.

    The problem with the editing is that it was used to mask other problems with the film. They finished shooting this thing in March of 2011 and were cutting and recutting for over a year to try and get it into a workable form. This was the best they could do with the edit with over a year to work on it.

  • That's very much my impression of the fight scenes; it's almost as though the editors did their best to assemble the best frames available and put them together.

  • Qinlong

    "the action sequences, even with choregraphy credited to the often masterful Corey Yuen, are so chopped up and confusing to watch"

    That's the most puzzling to me : you'd think a lover of martial arts cinema such as RZA would understand the value of crystal-clear editing...

  • I think his heart was in the right place, but he appears to have taken on a bigger job than he could handle, at least at this point of his filmmaker career.

  • "* From Urban Dictionary: "Meh: Indifference; to be used when one simply does not care."

    This is my favorite part of this review.

  • Thanks (?!).

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