The Man With The Iron Fists (2012)

man_with_the_iron_fistsIt’s not going to surprise anyone when I say I love kung fu movies. That’s a label that covers a wide variety of movies, and while I can’t claim to love them all, I do find almost all of them interesting on some level. One thing that puzzles me – and mainly in a rhetorical sense – is why there has not yet been a Great American Kung Fu movie. Now, kung fu tropes have been a part of American cinema for years; I’m talking here about The Matrix movies or Kill Bill. But there the kung fu is in service to another story – it is not a primary motivator, they do not take place in jianghu, The World of Martial Arts. Their characters are proficient in the martial arts, but those arts do not permeate the very fabric of the world the way they do in Asian movies.

And now, perhaps, The Man With The Iron Fists has answered that question.

Man With the Iron Fists, in case you’re not familiar, is a movie directed by, co-written by, and starring RZA, a man likely best known as a musician, rapper and hip hop producer. His credentials there are exceedingly strong, and there is no doubt that he is also a fanatic about kung fu movies. The monster group he co-founded in the early 90s was The Wu-Tang Clan, and their first album was named The 36 Chambers, for pete’s sake. I can’t judge the music, I’m not the target audience for hip hop, but there’s no doubt RZA knows what he’s talking about, kung fu movie-wise.

That said, Iron Fists didn’t do so well at the box office; reviews have run the gamut from lukewarm to outright hate. The most even-handed one I ran across is Paul Freitag-Fey’s at the Daily Grindhouse site – and even that one is all too aware of the movie’s flaws. But, as always, I have to see these things myself and make up my own mind, and so, after a hellaciously busy two weeks, on the verge of exhaustion, I put the disc into my player and willed everyone to be wrong about it.

My will was weak.

Take THAT, viewer!

Take THAT, viewer!

Now, the first remarkable thing about Iron Fists is that RZA actually set out to make a wuxia film. It is set in China in the mid-to-late 19th century, and is pretty much concerned with the jianghu as centered in the largely corrupt and extremely violent Jungle Village. Iron Fists shares a Macguffin with my favorite Shaw Brothers flick. The Kid With the Golden Arm: a cart full of government gold, headed for (mumble mumble). In Kid, it’s for the relief of flood victims. In Iron Fists… I’m just not sure.

Because here is the most severe blow against Iron Fists: the first cut reportedly came in at four hours. The same report says that RZA wanted to release it as two movies (which may have worked, we’ll never know), but it was instead cut down to 95 minutes – 107 if, like me, you watched the unrated extended version on disc. That means the first half to two-thirds of the movie is driven by narration, which is always a sign of trouble.

The-Man-with-the-Iron-Fists_07The first thirty minutes are incredibly frenetic and confusing. There’s a huge fight under the opening credits that I’m still not sure has any bearing on the story itself. A patriarch of the Lion Clan, Gold Lion (Chen Kuan Tai, himself an old school kung fu movie star of no small import) is assassinated, which does have a bearing, and the gold is being sent down the road for whatever purpose… it’s either for Jungle Village, or it’s just passing through Jungle Village… in either case, I’m not interested enough to go back and check.

The treacherous lieutenant of the Lion Clan, Silver Lion (Byron Mann) wants the gold, and is aided by a mysterious cloaked figure who will later be named as Poison Dagger (Daniel Wu, eventually). Gold Lion’s son, Zen Yi (Rick Yune) calls off his marriage to look into his father’s death. Zen, I should mention, is supposedly, anachronistically called The X-Blade, but seemingly only in the trailer. He has a “suit of knives”, which pops out porcupine-like quills as needed, though God only knows where they retract to when he’s finished. Not that this is the most outrageous weapon I’ve ever been asked to accept in a kung fu movie.

Meanwhile, at the Pink Blossom bordello (the finest in the region) Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu) welcomes an unusual traveler – a British expatriate with the unlikely sobriquet of Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), who wields a combination pistol dagger that whirls like a drill. Jack books a room with three prostitutes and settles in for his vacation.

the-man-with-the-iron-fists09 (1)Got that? Good. Now realize that none of these characters is the star of the movie, the main character. The title character.  That would be the perfectly-named Blacksmith, played by RZA, who is not only a blacksmith, but is also black! Get it? He manufactures the bizarre weapons for all the local clans, like the Lions, the Wolves, and the Rats (we are not allowed Tigers or Bears for the obvious joke).

No wonder Blossom – and nobody else, really – bats an eye when a lone Brit arrives in town. He has no novelty value.

The tale of how Blacksmith came to be in China is a fairly interesting story that will just have to wait until the third act, we still have a lot of narration to get through.

Zen Yi arrives and is promptly waylaid by the villainous Brass Body (David Bautista) who can, yes, turn his body to brass. Zen Yi barely escapes, rescued by Blacksmith and hidden by his girlfriend, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), one of Blossom’s finest.

The gold arrives, escorted by the Gemini Killers (Grace Huang and Andrew Lin), a matched pair whose fighting styles play off each other and whose weapons, when locked together, form a yin-yang. The worst casualty of the truncated running time is character development, and it is apparent the Gemini Killers were meant to have a much more significant chunk of time. As it is, they arrive, have a quick meal, are set upon by the Lion Clan, and then polished off by Poison Dagger in typical cowardly fashion. In just a little more time than it takes to tell about it.

man-with-the-iron-fists-img05Also when Poison Dagger finally takes off that cloak, we are obviously supposed to recognize him. We don’t. Or maybe it’s a kung fu joke, because Poison Dagger has the same flowing white hair as Pai Mei, villain of many a Shaw Brothers flick. Wait, I just saw a press photo of him in court garb – so he’s in one of the Imperial Court scenes back in Narration Land. No wonder I didn’t recognize him.

We recently crossed over a 1000 words, so let me try to be brief(er), The bad guys try to make Blacksmith tell where Zen Yi is, and when he refuses, they cut off his arms. He’s rescued by Jack Knife, who turns out to be an undercover agent for the Emperor. Blacksmith has, yes, iron fists made for himself  while we are regaled by the Origin of Blacksmith. A) he’s a freed slave B) his mom was Pam Grier C) blamed for a white man’s death, he jumped onto a ship D) which was wrecked off the China shore E) where Blacksmith was found by a bunch of monks out for a stroll.

liuNot bad. It explains what a black man is doing here, how he learned Chinese. Then, we learn, after being taught by none other than Gordon Liu, he is also a kung fu master of some skill (he just strayed significantly from The Path – to say the least! – which is why karma was such a bitch). Skillful enough to make the iron fists work as if they were actual hands. And skillful enough that, later, he will punch Brass Body so hard he apparently opens a singularity and makes the metal guy explode.

The last third of Iron Fists isn’t that bad; it’s just that the hectic patchwork of the first two acts has used up all the viewer’s patience, and without the necessary time spent developing the characters, there is no empathy for any of them, no sense of tragic loss or ultimate triumph. At least the damned narration vanishes.

We expect a lot from seasoned pros like Lucy Liu and Russell Crowe, and we get it. The movie provides some nice roles for Asian actors, but only Byron Mann and Daniel Wu get to make any impression, with Mann truly outstanding as Silver Lion. Sadly, the weak link is RZA, who possesses a low-key charisma and some personality, but not the presence or intensity necessary for an action star.

Man-with-the-iron-Fists-RZA-on-Set-with-Cinematographer-Chi-Ying-ChanHe fares a lot better as a director. Iron Fists is well-made and pretty assured when it isn’t trying to patch holes created by slashing the story to ribbons. I can’t fault RZA’s ambition, but I would have loved to see what he might have done with a script without such an epic scope, with a story that could have fit comfortably in 95 minutes. Judging from the final 30 minutes of Iron Fists, it could have been sweet.

The end credits set up the sequel, but that’s likely never going to happen. I do,  however, look forward to whatever RZA does next. This had to have been a tremendous learning experience, and I want to see where that education leads.

Damn it, I wanted to love this movie.

Reign of Assassins (2010)

reign-of-assassins-reviewI admit it: as a writer, I have a problem coming up with punchy titles. I’m the moron I always make fun of, the guy handing in a script with some all-purpose title like “Boiling Point”. So when a trend in using meta-style titles begins, I notice.

It’s hard to put a finger on where exactly it starts – 2007’s Shoot-Em-Up is a contender (and a favorite stupid movie of mine). 2011’s Wu Xia was the one that really made an impression on me, even though I think the movie hardly qualifies as true wuxia (never mind that, for Western audiences it was re-titled the even more generic Dragon). Dario Argento made a movie called Giallo, for pete’s sake.

(You can throw down all the Scary Movie and Superhero Movie titles you want. Yeah, they’re generic titles, and all share one thing: I despise them.)

Which brings us to tonight’s movie, entitled Jianghu (or pick your favorite romanization), titled after “the world of martial arts” you so often hear characters in Shaw Brothers movies ruling. The movie has a little better bearing on its title than Wuxia, and at least its Western title isn’t too generic – Reign of Assassins. (I’m still wondering where the hell Curse of the Black Scorpion came from when they re-titled The Feast, but that’s a grumble for another time)

wheelkingWhat we have with Reign is a sort of reverse Kill Bill. The movie starts with the Dark Stone clan of assassins slaughtering an entire royal family to get one mystical artifact – half the mummy of a revered monk. Studying the entire mummy will allow you to rule the world of martial blah blah blah, but one of the assassins – a woman with the unlikely name Drizzle (Kelly Lin) – takes off with the mummy half and spends the next three months in hiding with a wandering martial artist named Wisdom, who, through an act of self-sacrifice, puts her on the road to a new life as a normal, law-abiding person.

After some Ming Dynasty plastic surgery (it involves carnivorous insects and golden thread), Drizzle is transformed into Zing Jing (Michelle Yeoh) who loses herself in the capital city, setting up shop selling purses and the like in the streetside market. Thanks partially to her meddling landlady, Zing meets up with Ah-sheng (Jung Woo-sung, whom you might recognize from The Good, The Bad, The Weird), a new arrival in the city working as a courier-for-hire.

This portion of the movie takes it’s time, setting up their relationship and eventual marriage very well, with only occasional cutaways to the Dark Stone bad guys, still looking for that half a mummy, and recruiting Drizzle’s replacement. Eventually the two groups are going to intersect (as you knew they would), when yet another group of villains attempt to rob a bank where the mummy is rumored to be stored (and Ah-sheng is cashing a check).When the bandits start killing potential witnesses, Zing can hold back no longer, and unleashes Michelle Yeoh whoopass on them.

roa11That amounts to a tremor in the Force, and the Dark Stone’s head, The Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) recognizes Drizzle’s style even though she didn’t use her usual weapon, the flexible Water-Shedding Sword. The chief assassins of the Dark Stone descend on the city, and the fight is on.

There are some things that set Reign apart from the usual wuxia movie, besides the willingness to spend time developing Zing and Ah-sheng’s relationship (which pays off in the second half of the movie), the main one being  the characterization of the Dark Stone assassins. Writer/Director Su Chao-bin has given each of them a backstory, and their own set of goals and desires. They’re a bit more dimensional than your usual bad guys.

martial-arts-reign-assassins-video-art-521510If there is one complaint I have to make, it’s that some decent fight scenes – once more, to my joy, mostly practical wirework and very little discernible CGI, if any – is obscured by some frantic editing, possibly owed to the credited co-director, John Woo. Or possibly not. It’s not shot-through-a-telephoto-lens-what-the-hell-did-I-just-see bad, like too many Hollywood action scenes, but it does come close a couple of times. Luckily, the editing calms down in the second half, when those fight scenes start to really matter.

That out of the way: good performers, handsome camerawork, and a couple of plot twists I honestly didn’t expect puts Reign of Assassins on my plus list.  A bit of patience with the first half – and really, guys, the relationship stuff is well-done – pays some nice dividends in the second half. Not a game changer, but not a time-waster, either.

This trailer’s a bit small, but it’s one of the few I found that wasn’t interested in revealing any plot twists:

Wu Dang (2012)

Wu Dang (2012)There’s something about Asian action movies that call to me; the wuxia tales of righteous men and women in jianghu, the world of martial arts – these are my westerns. A mythic landscape for mythic figures to glide and fight through. If the corrupt life-or-death world of the Spaghetti Western is familiar to me yet exotic, how much more so is the jianghu, where in its most extreme forms, people can fly and magic is real? I first started watching kung fu films in the 70s, when I realized they were the best celluloid realization of a comic book world, superheroes battling supervillains. The marvelous resurgence in the early 90s with movies like Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain and Chinese Ghost Story provided fantasy realms that Hollywood seemed to be fumbling about, shallow but pretty movies like Legend or Tolkien pastiches like Willow.

With the handover in 1999, as Hong Kong once more became a part of Mainland China, the tenor of the movies changed, for a while. Propaganda took over, and though there are examples that still manage to thrill and excite, like Hero, Red Cliff,  the first Ip Man and Jet Li’s Fearless, you can’t make a steady diet of it. There was a point at which I feared the “honorable-Chinese-fighter-faces-foreign-devil” trope would become the Chinese equivalent of the zombie movie glut.

prof tangSo this is how I approached Wu Dang, knowing nothing of it: with an open mind, but some apprehension. And my open mind was rewarded.

Vincent Zhao Wenzhuo is professor Tang, a scholarly type operating in the early 30s (or, as the video box puts it, “the early days of Republican China”, but the box has as slippery a grip on history as it does the movie’s story). As the movie opens, he identifies a legendary sword from the equally legendary Wu Dang mountain as a fake, but finds a  non-fake treasure map in the sword’s carrying case, revealing that there are seven treasures on Wu Dang. Tang then fulfills his Indiana Jones requirement by fighting his way out through the gang that offered the fake sword for sale.

wu dang xu jiaoTang’s daughter (Josie Xu Jiao) is something of a martial arts prodigy, and he enters her in the Wu Dang Martial Arts Tournament, which occurs only every 500 years, intending – of course – to seek out the treasures during the competition. But there is also – equally of course – a sexy female fighter (Mini Yang) who has an identical treasure map, and seems to have a legitimate claim over that same sword that started this whole process. If you suspect that the two of them will join forces and then fall in love, congratulations! You’ve seen more than one movie, and are wise to this sort of thing.. Besides the various monkish factions guarding the treasures – often unbeknownst, even to themselves – there’s also the small matter of the treasure-robbing gang showing up, and guess what they want.

wu-dang4There’s also a sub-plot about a fairly simple, honest man (Siu-Wong Fan, who crops up all over the place, more recently in the Donnie Yen Ip Man movies, and who I last saw in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate), who moved to the mountain to seek treatment for his ailing mom, and who the Wise Old Master has been training in Sleeping Kung Fu, which sounds like something I might be good at. This guy meets cute with Tang’s daughter and falls in love with her.

It isn’t until the middle of the movie that we find out exactly why Tang is seeking the treasures: supposedly, somehow, when all the treasures come together, they can magically cure his daughter of an unspecified congenital defect that killed both her mother and her grandmother while still young. Tang also has a growing suspicion: why are there two identical treasure maps, and why do they look so new?

tang yangNow what intrigues me about Wu Dang is – beyond the fact that I really enjoyed it – is that everyone else seems to dismiss or outright hate it. (I’ve had this experience before – ask me about Robocop 2 and Star Trek V sometime). I am going to admit to you that it is flawed. Exactly why, when most of the story takes place on magical, timeless Wu Dang mountain, a location that is surely of the jianghu, it was felt necessary to set the story in the 30s is a puzzler – unless you absolutely must have the Indiana Jones connection. Exactly what the hell the disease might be that’s killing Josie is maddeningly oblique, and why the hell she is fighting in the competition when that seems to be speeding her decline is questionable. The plot goes to great pains to show she is hiding this from her father, but… jeez, girl. Seek some help.

After the buildup, the tournament itself is sadly underdeveloped; Jimmy Wang Yu would have devoted a half hour to it, at least. Some conflicts don’t get a proper resolution: Mini Yang has to steal an invitation to the tournament, by apparently beating up a bunch of people on an airplane – we kind of have to take the movie’s word on that.

There is also at least one unearned happy ending. But that’s just me being a jerk.

yang-mi-wudang-pub-a2These things were obviously not enough to kill my enjoyment of the movie. I found it a pleasant throwback to the martial arts movies I enjoyed in the 90s. Corey Yuen’s fight choreography is old-school wirework, with only occasional CGI work intruding to cover that Mini Yang isn’t a fighter. Lots of spinning and old school kick-the-bad-guy-through-a-wall action. I dug it. There is one especially nice scene where Zhao and Yang are facing impossible odds, and as their fighting styles begin to merge and play off each other, the film slows down and a romantic tango begins to play while they kick bad guys in the face. It’s a nice, cinematic moment.

Other people aren’t so lucky as I, or, as they would be more prone to point out, are simply smarter than me. They use phrases like “moronic screenplay”, “sub-par movie” and “don’t waste your life”. My criteria for movies are, I suspect, a bit more liberal than most. All I ask is to be entertained. And in that light, I enjoyed Wu Dang. Some didn’t. I shrug.

bad guyTo return to the last paragraph, I will amend it to say that yes, I am the lucky one. So often these days I will hear a conversation about a movie that is basically a litany of complaints that finishes up with a version of “And that’s why it sucked.” I have a news flash: Not every movie sucks. Moreover, not every movie sucks or rules. A lot of movies are just mediocre, a fact that many people seem unwilling to accept. A polarized view that a movie must either be orgasmic or lower than worm dung is not a very happy outlook; you’re going to miss out on a lot of fun that way.

Considering how I began my Internet career, reviewing movies on a website called (with a complete lack of cleverness) The Bad Movie Report, I find this sort of thought process amazing. I dealt with a subgenre of film that was disposable, and most times knew it was disposable, yet most often resulted in something that could not be labeled mediocre, but were memorable or entertaining in surprising ways.

wu-dang-movie-images-111126-12To put it another way: I’m a musical omnivore. I like and collect a lot of different types of music. In one of my many attempts to earn a living, I perform every week with a murder mystery dinner theater that has operated out of a number of different hotels over the years. Hotels have a lot of different events. Once there was an Indian wedding being held in a large atrium, and Bollywood-type music was echoing all over the hotel as we were loading out. One of the other members of the group (one I didn’t like, anyway), sneered “God, I hate that shit!”

My response was “Really? It’s music, for pete’s sake. How can you not like music?” It’s all the same pieces, just put together in different forms.

I really don’t get it. Maybe it’s just me.

So Wu Dang: not perfect by any degree, but enough fun that I found it above-average, and I don’t feel bad saying so. I will, however, go ahead and say that the trailer isn’t very good, at all: