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The Blacksmith and Jack Knife, Lady Silk and Gold Lion, The X-Blade and Brass Body – you know you’re in for something when characters sport names that would be right at home in a pulpier version of Street Fighter. What that “something” we’re ultimately in for is, is another story entirely.
RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists is a pastiche of colorful camp, eccentric caricatures and a healthy dose of CGI blood. If kung fu via glossy art is what you’re after, Fists will be an eye-rolling slog, but those hankering for a messy homage could do worse than this kinetic smear of martial arts.
For all of the silliness on display, Fists plays it pretty close to the chest, and when it isn’t being intentionally funny a lot of it comes off as a little too self-serious. RZA is clearly passionate about the genre and seems intent on presenting it in an austere manner, and it’s refreshing to see care on display, but when you’re making a mash-up – an orgy of blood and weaponry – solemness ultimately isn’t what we need.
The Man with the Iron Fists takes place in the isolated alternate realty of Jungle Village, a barbaric town in China where all of the world’s deadliest warriors seek to lay claim. Caught in the middle of the ever-escalating feud is the Blacksmith (RZA), a hard-working individual essentially forced to craft deadly weapons for anyone looking to off their enemies. He dreams of earning enough money to leave Jungle Village with the object of his affections, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute in Madam Blossom’s (Lucy Liu) house of ill repute. But as a shipment of gold is set to pass through and a nobleman is betrayed and assassinated, all hell breaks loose and lusts for revenge and wealth trump all else.
The cartoonish characters that populate this film are fun to behold and would be right at home on a playing card in some sort of kung fu role playing game. Unfortunately, they’re exactly that thin. As is the case with any number of genre slurries like The Expendables, all we get is a caricature of an individual as we skirt in and out and back and forth, giving everyone their money shot but nobody a significant paycheque. Even the titular character is essentially absent until the final third, and even then he’s still caught up in an ensemble battle. One question I’ve been asked and seen posed frequently is if Russell Crowe is in the movie much, to which I respond that nobody is in this movie much (though he does chew the scenery with aplomb).
Even more unfortunate is that any attempts at characterization or back story are actually detrimental and fall back into the aforementioned “self-serious” realm. It seems somewhat unfair to say that this film suffers when it doesn’t present character history and languishes when it does, but that’s just the way it comes across. Where the film excels (and where it should for that matter) is with the fight sequences, which are blood-soaked and well choreographed if a little too kitschy to really evoke any “oohs” or “ahhs.” A persistent use of quick cuts also hinders what could have been.
Reminiscent of the classic rock overlay of A Knight’s Tale, The Man with the Iron Fists’ combo of rap (written and performed by RZA) with period visuals actually works pretty well and gives the film a distinct feel even if the volume of those tracks is cranked up a tad too high. Don’t expect any Original Song Oscar nominations, but it’s certainly the rare original movie soundtrack that would be worth buying in itself.
Even though The Man with the Iron Fists is only partially successful and financially is looking to draw in similar (sparse) audiences that turned out for The Warrior’s Way, RZA’s passion for the genre and game performances from its cast amidst the craziness of it all are commendable. I can tell you with certainty that some viewers are going to adore this mash-up and its rise to cult status should be rather swift. It all has enough going for it to make me interested in what wacky concoction this rapper-turned-director can cook up next.