The Man With the Iron Fists is not an elegant movie, to say the very least. But it’s a movie with a heart of gold once you get past the high levels of gore. RZA’s directorial debut is a movie that is clearly a loving tribute to Hong Kong action cinema, and it’s a love letter that seems like it was written by a teenage boy. It earnestly means everything it’s saying, even if the sentiment is unrefined.
In the Chinese settlement of Jungle Village a noble blacksmith (RZA) is swept up in a gang war that is heating up over stolen imperial gold and must team up with an Englishman (Russell Crowe) to put an end to the war. To do this the Blacksmith must forge his greatest weapon.
The plot of the movie isn’t exactly bare bones. There are a lot of different elements and characters at play here to the point that it would be a chore to list them all. This is simultaneously the movie’s biggest benefit and detriment. This movie is very ambitious, especially for a first time director. RZA may have had some tutoring from Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth, but he clearly has room for improvement. Having said that he shows some serious promise as an action director. In fact I have no problems with the way the film is directed. It’s cartoonishly over the top and gory, but in an oddly sensible way. The only gripes I have with the movie purely have to do with the script.
The primary thing wrong with this movie is that it doesn’t establish its rules early on. Every action movie has rules, and with the first fight scene those rules are established. For example, in John Woo’s Hard Boiled the teahouse fight establishes the rule that in this world guns have an infinite supply of ammo. In the first fight of Drunken Master II it’s established that the more a drunken boxer drinks, the more powerful they become. But with Iron Fists the ideas of Chi as a plot device aren’t established until we’re well into the film. While it’s forgivable for Wuxia films to not explain why people are able to fly, when you go to the trouble of explaining why certain characters have certain powers it’s best for it to not feel like something that’s just being dropped on us.
Another problem stems from the way the Blacksmith’s back story is delivered. It’s understandable that at some point you would have to have a scene explaining why an African American is in the middle of 1800s China, but the problem with the way it’s explained is that it arrives too late for us to invest in him as a character. I would almost have preferred they left the character unexplained. It would have been fine considering the Chinese characters are all speaking English. Like I said, the rules aren’t explained soon enough. Or better yet, give his back story from the very beginning of the movie. It would have made the moment when he gets the iron fists even more poignant.
It probably sounds like I didn’t like the movie, right? Well that’s not the case at all. I actually loved a lot about this movie. First of all while the Blacksmith seems to play second fiddle to the supporting characters I couldn’t help but cheer for him by the end of it. This guy goes through some serious crap in this movie and to see him become empowered is great.
Also, as I previously said, I like how the movie is directed. RZA knows how to pull a kung fu movie off in terms of style. There’s not an ounce of shaky cam footage and for that I am sincerely grateful. He also gets serious bonus points for presenting the movie in anamorphic widescreen. RZA’s music also fits in perfectly with the tone that’s struck. I also loved the nods to classic movies, and I don’t just mean in terms of direction. I felt like I was in on a great inside joke when the love song from John Woo’s The Killer started playing in one scene. It’s little stuff like that that makes up this movie. Well, little stuff and Russell Crowe.
Yeah, about Russell Crowe…it’s a good thing RZA gave a good understated performance because Russell Crowe owned this movie. He owned it. He owned it to the point that I want his character, Jack Knife, to get his own movie. He’s more than just comedic relief, he’s a character that you can cheer for right next to the Blacksmith. I would go on raving about the rest of the actors in the film, but to be honest everyone does a good job with the material that they’re given.
Overall The Man With the Iron Fists is a fun movie. You see the love for Hong Kong action all over it and even though the movie is unfocused in its narrative and the main character doesn’t get enough of the limelight it has some great fun. The only true complaint, plot aside, is that you wish it had brought a little more innovation. Having said that, if RZA gets to direct the remake of the Last Dragon with Samuel L. Jackson as Sho’nuff, I’m absolutely in. If you love Hong Kong action flicks, then check this out.