It’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.
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 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.
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.
Also 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.
Not 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.
He 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.