The Man with the Iron Fists marks a long-time passion project for rapper-turned-actor-turned-director RZA. Finally delivering his own Kung fu movie, he took a step into a genre Hollywood largely ignores. While no one can take credit away from the artist aiming high, the film’s inconsistent quality does not match his high hopes for the project. So much is packed into this frenetic offering, yet it’s all inconsequential and nothing, in terms of plot, is delivered with any impact.
The Blacksmith (RZA) — who hates violence, but makes deadly weapons — is trying to leave China in order to get away from all the clan fighting going on, along with his prostitute love interest (Jamie Chung). Why does he love her? Because she is a prostitute, so the story requires it. The rest of the movie follows the same short of contrived thinking. It is unclear whether the movie is attempting to poke fun at a cliches like this (not unlike co-writer and producer Eli Roth‘s deconstruction of genre conventions in Cabin Fever), but it’s muddled due to its overtly serious tone.
RZA proved himself as a capable actor over the past few years with minor, but memorable roles in Funny People, American Gangster and Repo Men. Based on his latest project, those brief supporting characters may be his best fit. Here he carries the same expression and swagger, never switching it up; when The Blacksmith is sad, he looks the same as he did when he was happy. It feels like RZA wanted to play it safe with his first-time leading role, not wanting to go big or small. He has got charm, but not the action star presence or a dramatic range.
Russell Crowe, however, comes in and saves The Man from the Iron Fists from pure bad movie territory. Whenever Crowe is on screen, he’s either yelling or talking with a slow confidence, and it’s consistently hilarious. It’s apparent he’s having fun with material, his tonal commitment quickly winning viewers over. Unfortunately, most of the ensemble seem to be acting in entirely different movies. RZA, Jamie Chung and Rick Yune take it all too seriously, while Crowe, Chung Lee and Byron Mann always go for laughs first. There’s never a firm directorial handle of tone as RZA will go from jokey narration to acting dour in his scenes — a representation of the film’s problems as a whole.
Not even the action can make up for the film’s shortcomings. There is a fair amount of combat, but it’s drowned out by all the exposition, much of it needless due to the excess of characters for such a simple plot. Even when the action comes, it’s a scattershot, with too much cutting and not enough breathing room. The final showdown is when RZA finally lets loose, but even then, the movie doesn’t reach its grandest potential for mayhem.
The Man with the Iron Fists features impressive cinematography, fight choreography and production design, but the film’s technical merits can’t overcome Roth and RZA’s tedious script. There is no question the new director has his moments behind the camera, but as a storyteller and actor, he needs some serious guidance when it comes to a sophomore effort.
The Man with the Iron Fists is now in wide release.
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