Man with the Iron Fists, The (2012)
Directed by RZA
Distributed by Universal Studios
As far as directorial debuts go, The Man with the Iron Fists is a rather remarkable achievement by RZA, who demonstrates here his lifelong love affair for the kung fu classics and martial arts movies which has inspired both his music and his now-burgeoning film career.
And while Iron Fists isn't nearly as flawless as the films that may have served as inspiration for it (Five Deadly Venoms particularly), the flick delivers on so many other levels that makes it easy to overlook the flaws and just enjoy getting caught up in RZA's stunning modern kung fu epic that left this writer both enamored and entertained from start to finish.
Besides co-writing and directing, RZA also stars as our titular character who's known as "The Blacksmith" at the start of the tale; we learn that he woefully spends his time making the world's deadliest weapons for bloodthirsty killers as a means to buy freedom for him and his prostitute girlfriend, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), who both yearn to escape their respective jobs from hell and start a new quiet life together.
Of course that plan gets put on hold as soon as a band of merciless warriors, assassins and a British soldier/opium addict show up in Jungle Village on the hunt for a legendary gold treasure that has recently arrived as part of a convoy. But once the gold gets into the wrong hands (and The Blacksmith loses his), that's when the Man with the Iron Fists must step in to save the day, rescue the treasure and restore peace to his small village.
What makes the The Man with the Iron Fists a highly effective slice of kung fu bliss is that storytellers RZA and Eli Roth did some serious homework before production and it shows. The insane attention to detail that was paid on this project - from the myriad deadly weapons to the lavish art direction to the gravity-defying fights to even the various warrior clans - elevates their story and should no doubt keep the classic fu fans out there riveted from start to finish. It's not nearly as boisterous a film as the trailers may lead you to believe; RZA and Roth also work in a lot of quieter, subtle moments that make for a nice balance alongside the insane action set pieces.
The eclectic cast members of Iron Fists are all mostly great as well across the board; Russell Crowe, as expected, pretty much steals the show as Jack Knife in what is his best performance in well over 10 years; Lucy Liu plays to her strengths as Madame Blossom, the no-nonsense proprietor of Jungle Village's local whorehouse who exudes confidence and intelligence in a performance similar to her work in Kill Bill. Rick Yune (The Fast and the Furious, Die Another Day) portrays another protagonist in Iron Fists and once again proves that this guy should be working more and makes for a great foil to the nefarious Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le), who are out to capture the gold and destroy everything in their path.
Oh, and speaking of Mann's performance as Silver Lion, he gives Crowe a run for his money in the charisma department in Iron Fists as his "Duran Duran meets Prince" persona is just cheeky enough without ever venturing into over-the-top territory.
Dave Bautista also pops up as the unstoppable killing machine Brass Body, and while he's not given that many lines (the actor is the first to tell you that his strengths are playing more on the strong and silent type), he's a monstrous beast of a presence on screen and a formidable foe for RZA's hero to square off against during the film's climax. After this and Scorpion King 3, I'd like to see him doing more in the action world down the line.
Unfortunately though, it seems like RZA may have been just a bit too preoccupied with the production of The Man with the Iron Fists because as an actor he never feels like he's really comfortable in the skin of his hero. His stoicism just plays it too straight for this world, and much of film's lag in the second act comes from when we have to follow his character for an extended time. That's not to say his performance was bad, it just felt rigid, and if given the chance to come back for a sequel, here's hoping he gets to loosen up a bit for round two.
Longtime fu fans out there will absolutely go nuts for what RZA has skillfully created in The Man with the Iron Fists: a love letter to films like A Touch of Zen, Shogun Assassin and the aforementioned Five Deadly Venoms. Iron Fists is best when RZA steps back and lets his co-stars and the insane action by legendary choreographer Corey Yuen take over. His sometimes too-serious approach drags the story a bit in the middle act, but once things pick back up for the final epic showdown, that's when The Man with the Iron Fists really shines.
Casual action fans might be turned off by the film's more subtle nature, but for those who grew up on a steady diet of kung fu movies, The Man with the Iron Fists is everything you'd want in a modern fight flick and more.
4 out of 5