I had high hopes for The Man with the Iron Fists because a considerable number of talented individuals came together to create it, including a cast that includes Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Jamie Chung, and Rick Yune. When I spoke with Yune last year, he explained that Quentin Tarantino was far more involved behind the scenes than his official “presented by” credit would suggest. Eli Roth co-produced and co-scripted, while legendary choreographer Corey Yuen staged the martial arts fights. The wild card from the very beginning, however, was the man behind it all: RZA.
As writer-director-star, RZA decided to wear a lot of hats for a first-time filmmaker. No one would doubt the Wu-Tang Clan mastermind’s devotion to chop-socky movies, but would he bring more than a fanboy’s perspective to Iron Fists? The answer is a resounding, thundering, unequivocal “no.” The movie is a narrative disaster, loaded with plot elements that are confusingly incoherent. The action scenes are mostly a visually jumbled mess as well. Why get a skilled choreographer like Yuen and then refuse to simply shoot the fights, letting the moves speak for themselves? Instead we’re presented with a blur of quick cuts and very cheap CG blood effects.
What little I could comprehend, plot-wise, involved a mishmash of clichés involving two clans quarreling in Jungle Village. Ostensibly set in 19th century China, there’s no real sense of time established (largely due to the inclusion of hip hop tunes on the soundtrack and contemporary American accents). Several fantasy elements crop up throughout, including Brass Body (David Bautista), whose skin morphs into bronze whenever attacked. Zen-Yi (Yune) receives news that his father, leader of the Lion Clan, has been murdered. He seeks to avenge him, eventually enlisting the help of Jack Knife (Crowe) and the town blacksmith (RZA).
That sounds relatively straightforward. It should have been. But somehow RZA and Roth managed to muddy it up with a ton of junk that’s all too inconsequential to even bother caring about. Madam Blossom (Liu) runs a brothel called the Pink Blossom. That’s where the blacksmith’s true love, Lady Silk (Chung), works. So there’s a romance wrapped up in Fists, with the blacksmith and Silk planning to flee Jungle Village someday. By the way, despite all the graphic violence (cartoonish as it may be) there isn’t so much as a glimpse of nudity throughout. As Jack Knife entertains a half dozen prostitutes early in the film, all clothing remains strategically placed so as not to reveal anything beyond a PG-13 level.
Simply put, someone should’ve hired a screenwriter to sort out RZA’s ideas, streamlining them while finding a way to add some dramatic weight. Hiring an experienced director would’ve been a good idea too. Maybe the action scenes would’ve had some coherence. And casting someone other than RZA as the blacksmith could’ve only been an improvement. It’s not that his acting is bad so much as nonexistent. A scene during the end credits even set things up for the further adventures of the blacksmith. I can hardly imagine a movie I’d be looking forward to less.
At least the Blu-ray offers a quality presentation, with a 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer that showcases Chi Ying Chan’s digital cinematography. If anything, there’s too much fine detail on display, revealing the seams in the digital effects far too often. That’s not the fault of the transfer, I just think this film would’ve looked better had it been shot in a more stylized way. The perfect clarity of the image gives Fists a decidedly uncinematic look.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is quite good as well, with lots of full-bodied smashing, thumping, and clanging during fight scenes. Surround activity is frequent and unpredictable, assaulting viewers from all angles. There was a little too much LFE activity, with some scenes featuring extended periods of near-constant, sustained bass frequencies. Less would’ve been more on the bass end of things.
If the extra 12 minutes added to the unrated cut weren’t enough, the extra features include more than 20 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. There are a number of promotional featurettes as well, none of which brings anything to the table. Universal knew they had a dog on their hands. As such, almost no effort was put into adding decent supplements. I don’t blame them. The only good feature would’ve been an examination of how RZA could assemble such a talented cast and crew and still manage to botch The Man with the Iron Fists this badly.