Directed by RZA
Distributed by Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Is it possible for a movie to display an enormous amount of passion without actually having a heart? That’s the question this reviewer had to ponder halfway through the directorial debut of music producer and Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA, The Man with the Iron Fists – an action-packed throwback to the types of Shaw Brothers epics that once played grindhouses and provided inspiration for Fists “presenter” Quentin Tarantino’s own Kill Bill films. But while RZA’s love for those kung-fu extravanganzas is obvious in every single frame, it fails to translate into any genuine emotion when it comes to the film’s story or characters.
Set in a small village in nineteenth century China, Fists follows the Blacksmith (RZA), a humble…well, blacksmith, who fills his time by forging weapons for the various warring clans that populate his hometown, all while saving the money he earns to one day free his lover Lady Silk (Chung) from the brothel that employs her. When a shipment of gold and the murder of a beloved clan leader precipitates a bloody war, Blacksmith is brought into company with a number of colorful characters, including the roguish Brit Jack Knife (Crowe), brothel owner Madam Blossom (Liu), and the vengeful Zen Yi (Yune), son of the murdered clan leader. Before long, Blacksmith is dragged into a battle he initially wants no part of, though a brutal attack and personal tragedy force him to rise to the occasion and become the iron-fisted warrior of the title.
Sounds pretty kickass, eh? While that setup is full of potential, and while the action is stirring at times and the relatively contained story still feels suitably epic, Fists ultimately fails to connect on an emotional level. Examples? The film tells us that Blacksmith loves Lady Silk, but we never really feel it. It tells us that Zen Yi is on a quest to avenge his father’s death, but we never feel the fury that must drive him (even for all of the impressive fight sequences that result from his journey). And by the film’s end, we are to believe that two of the leads have become “brothers” due to their shared struggle, but we just never feel their camaraderie. The relationships in this film are all built only on sentiment and the necessities of the plot, thus none of the would-be emotional payoffs manage to resonate (the death of one character’s beloved might as well have been met with a shrug, for all of the impact it has).
Am I asking too much from my kung-fu movie? I don’t think so. A movie can be fun and engaging, can it not? And for a movie dealing with issues such as love, loyalty, betrayal, and death, you’d expect some level of emotion, wouldn’t you? But no. Instead, what we have is a feature full of needlessly convoluted plotting, the bulk of which merely serves only as a clothesline on which to hang the film’s many action sequences. As a fan of both Tarantino and Fists co-writer Eli Roth, I would’ve expected a more positive influence on the film’s story. The two do seem to be evident in the film’s DNA, what with the film’s anachronistic needle drops and its astounding level of gore (at times), but they don’t seem to have affected RZA’s storytelling in any meaningful way.
Still, that’s not to say that there’s nothing to praise here. In fact, there’s quite a lot. As mentioned, the action sequences are usually stellar, the bloodshed often eye-popping (heh), and Chi Ying Chan’s photography is quite gorgeous, as is the production design. In addition, the performances are all mostly solid. RZA makes a fine lead, Rick Yune does well portraying a sympathetic hero after years of playing villains, and both Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu seem to be having a blast with their characters while managing to never wink at the camera.
And it should be noted that, for a novice filmmaker, RZA shows an incredible amount of confidence, employing a number of risky stylistic choices throughout the film that somehow always manage to work. While I’m ultimately not a huge fan of his debut, I will say that I look forward to his next film, whatever that may be.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has gifted The Man with the Iron Fists with a fairly strong presentation on Blu-ray. The image is fan-blade sharp, with gorgeous colors and inky blacks. The 5.1 audio track is impressive, and will undoubtedly kick your ears’ asses with glee. The bonus features collection is nice enough, if a little light. We get twenty-four minutes of deleted scenes (including a lengthy sequence that would have better set the stage for the film’s story), then a handful of featurettes that are fine, if ultimately all-too-brief bits of fluff that take a gander at the film’s inspirations, location, and production.
Ultimately, while there is plenty to love about RZA’s first outing as a feature film director, it ultimately misses the mark with its weak plotting and lack of heart. However – the fighting, photography, performances, and production design are all of a high enough quality that you’ll probably want to give this film a look anyway, especially if you’re a fan of kung-fu flicks and grindhousey throwbacks (and who isn’t?). So, while The Man with the Iron Fists may not be a must-buy, there’s likely no harm in giving it a rental, at the very least.
2 1/2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5