Can it really be fair to critique a passion project? No matter what you say about it, the person who got it made only wanted one thing, and that was to bring this particular story to the screen. Whether good or bad, they did it and their mission is complete, so good for them and congrats to them for overcoming numerous odds to get it done. Yet, for the rest of us, whose passion is only to see a good movie, now there’s where the story changes and the responsibility of the people behind the camera suddenly comes into focus. Sadly, this passion play does not satisfy both sides of the screen.
The Man with the Iron Fists is an homage to the kung-fu genre of the ’70s. The story surrounds an impressively talented blacksmith who makes weapons for all sides in a coming gang war. He only does this to earn enough money to buy his future bride away from her life at the nearby brothel. Inevitably, he can’t play both sides. He makes a choice and it costs him dearly. Revenge becomes the name of the game as he lives on to make the most destructive weapon of his life.
RZA, a member and producer for the legendary hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, is the man with the plan behind this project. He directed, starred in, and co-wrote it along with horror icon Eli Roth. Quentin Tarantino also lent a hand as “presenter”, bringing the team together with a nice little bow.
RZA I’ve heard is one of the most knowledgable people about the kung-fu genre in Hollywood, being a devoted fan of it nearly his whole life. You can see it even back in the time of the Wu-Tang Clan in their music videos, many of which shot as mini kung-fu films. Yet, all the knowledge in the world about a particular style of filmmaking doesn’t necessarily mean you will make a great film, which sadly plays itself out here.
There is something corny and hilarious about the old ’70s kung-fu films which grants them a level of cult status today, but if you are going to make an homage to them, you need to go all the way with it. RZA attempts to update it while keeping the stilted dialogue and overly intricate character plotlines intact, but it fails to elicit the same response when watching it. Maybe it was because we always knew the original films were bad, just that they had amazing fight choreography that didn’t exist in American cinema. We actually relished the horrible translations and melodramatic acting, but in this modern-day version it doesn’t feel like relishing the past, more like suffering through the present.
My biggest complaint here is how the movie is shot. Kung-fu films are special in the cinematic world because they are given immense leeway in every part of the moviemaking process as long as they show us some incredible fight sequences. Sure enough, RZA filled the flick with fights, blood and gore, but he used the more American style of filming, which involves many more close-ups, quick cuts and intentionally shaky hand-held camerawork. It ends up making the fights less impressive because the audience can hardly tell what cool manuever the person is pulling off, it’s just a close-up of limbs and legs flying around. Paul Greengrass failed the same way when he made The Bourne Supremacy (but then regained his senses in the next chapter, The Bourne Ultimatum). The fights are the most important element of these movies, so showing them cleanly and clearly should always be of the utmost importance.
Right beyond that gripe would be RZA himself. Again, I give him great credit for getting the whole project together and pulling in some really great actors (Lucy Liu, Russell Crowe, and legends of the genre like Corey Yuen and Gordon Liu), but casting himself in the lead role proved to be the wrong move. There is definitely a precedence for leads in these films to be stoic, pure-hearted men dragged unwillingly into the fight, usually hiding their intense emotions at bay for fear of the violence they could unleash, but RZA lacked any emotional intensity on-screen from the first moment almost until the screen went dark. At times it looked like he just didn’t even want to be there. A switch in the starring role might have given this fight flick some legs to stand on, but I can’t go as far to say it would have suddenly become a good film.
Honest effort, but missed the mark.