By: Daniel Reynolds
Look, I get it, RZA loves kung fu movies. He grew up immersed in the grindhouse theatres of New York City and clearly has strong feelings of nostalgia for the genre films of his youth. With that out of the way, let’s talk about The Man with the Iron Fists. The film, a labour of love (yes, another one), tells the story of a blacksmith (played by RZA, who also wrote and directed the film) living in the margins of a wild town known as Jungle City. It was filmed on location in China, which I guess is supposed to make it feel more legitimate. And as is mandated for all films remotely resembling kung fu violence these days, Gordon Liu makes an appearance.
I don’t stand opposed to kung fu movies, though I admit I haven’t seen many of them (outside of Kill Bill, the awesome graphic novel by Kagan McLeod’s, Infinite Kung Fu, is a lone source). Theoretically, the structure of this one is appealing. It involves, and bear with me here because the intro to the film is mildly incoherent, the transport of the governor’s gold, the betrayal of the Lion clan leader, the banding together of fighters to defeat a common enemy, and the defense of a home town. The original cut of the film was supposedly upwards of four hours, and the gaps tend to show. However, the re-cut hour and a half is still an exercise in tedium. Again, it is clear that RZA understands the elements of the kung fu movie (far better than me, I continue to add) but he allows himself to get lost in them.
When the film is allowed to breathe (usually when Russell Crowe or Lucy Liu are on screen), it has its moments. Crowe, playing, as far as I can tell, an aristocratically-styled British cowboy (named Jack Knife no less) is in full-on Gladiator gone to seed mode. He lumps around the various stage pieces using every ounce of his considerably bloated charisma. Liu plays, well, she plays it like she did in Kill Bill; acknowledging a certain absurdity but giving it out straight-faced anyway. Of course, I should also make mention of Byron Mann, playing the ridiculously hirsute Silver Lion; he gets most of the best lines, all delivered with some delightfully over the top intonation, and appears to be having even more fun than Crowe.
Sadly, the titular ‘Man’ is played by RZA himself and it is clear that he is just too close to the whole production. He tasks himself, essentially, with acting as the heart and soul of the film (along with Rick Yune, another heroic character not particularly suited to the task). Unfortunately, despite his obvious talents behind the mic, and the fun he can clearly have while acting, he lacks a weighty enough presence to anchor the film. I realize this may be asking a lot, but considering RZA sometimes gets shown up by former pro wrestler Dave Bautista strutting around, this is where the film falls apart.
For all the detail and attempts at world building that RZA imbues his film with (and, as mentioned, there was apparently a lot more to it), there is a lack of investment in the shallow, truncated events of the revenge quest we are urged to get engaged with. In short: we don’t care. For a kung fu movie to work (or any quest/revenge flick, really; I’m not splitting the atom here), the narrative has to impact the psyche harder than any punch to the throat. For all the dismembered limbs and wanton violence (and there is a decent amount of that), the film’s conclusion comes and goes.
This may be a random aside, but my mind kept turning back to the aforementioned instant classic comic book, Infinite Kung Fu. Freed of the time constraints of a typical motion picture, McLeod tells the story of a two kung fu fighters (including one, Moog Joogular who looks sort of like RZA with an afro, if you squint) on a quest to avenge the evil done by a rogue poison kung fu practitioner. While I admit I’m comparing apples and oranges a bit here, the narrative momentum of the book, with its rich tapestry of characters, sense of setting and mood and breakneck action set pieces, achieves something of a Zen perfection for the genre. Hell, it even has Gordon Liu on hand to write a brief foreword introducing the book!
Nevertheless, I will applaud RZA for fulfilling this particular cinematic dream. He (along with co-writer Eli Roth) have been workshopping this film since the mid-aughts and I don’t for one second doubt that RZA has a rich appreciation of kung fu films and the esoteric lore that travels along with them. He approaches his movie head on, attempting to imbue life in a genre that is largely dead these days. Unfortunately, losing oneself in devotion to a forgotten genre, however noble, can cause one to lose sight of why the genre, collapsed under the weight of meta-jokes and ‘bad is good’ film making, is perhaps best left to nostalgia.