The Man With the Iron Fists Review
A whole lot stupider than I had hoped it would be.
I have been dreading writing this review. I love martial arts movies (the Master of the Flying Guillotine will always be my favorite, but 36th Chamber of Shaolin is up there. Kung-Fu the Invisible Fist image courtesy of the Movie T-Shirt category) and am a fan of Quentin Tarantino, so when I heard he was presenting an homage Kung Fu Theater film I was as excited as possible and really looking forward to this.
However, I have discovered that being a movie reviewer has a huge karma element, in that you pay for the good movies with the bad. The last few months have been a wonderful stroll through movies that I expected to suck that were actually fun and entertaining (Pitch Perfect, for example), so it seems inevitable that I would go to a movie that I expected to be amazingly good and instead be handed a big, incoherent mess. The first sign of incoming suck was when, after the title credit of “Quentin Tarantino presents…” you don’t see his name listed in anything that remotely relates to the actual production of the film. Can someone who works in the film industry please explain to me what the word “presents” actually refers to? Was Quentin involved in the writing at all? Did he see this film and think “Hmm. This is exactly the kind of Kung Fu movie I would have made had I had the time.” Did he finance the film? Did he operate the projector at the premier and sell popcorn at the concession stand? Really, what the hell did he do with this film? I need to know.
Instead, this film was written and directed by RZA, who was also the star. In some situations this can lead to a brilliant movie when the star is actually an extremely talented director as well as an accomplished actor (Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, etc), but if the person in charge doesn’t have that kind of past credibility it is easy for the experience to turn into a massive self aggrandizing ego trip. RZA is a founding member of the Wu Tang clan, one of the few rap bands I can actually listen to, and is a well known fan of Kung Fu Theater. It is apparent that he wanted to create a tribute to the Wu Tang films of yesteryear but got sidetracked by his fan induced need to stick everything and the kitchen sink into this film.
I will say it apparent that his knowledge of Kung Fu Theater is extensive, and he managed to incorporate a lot of the visuals and concepts into this film. However, the one thing most old martial arts films seem to have is a fairly coherent and direct story plot. This movie seems to want to take five different movies and run them through a tree shredder before mixing them up and taping them into one film. The rumor I read is that the original film ran four hours and RZA wanted to present them as a Part I and II Kill Bill style but was forced by the studio to cut it down to 90 minutes. If that is true than the mishmash of story elements, the characters that we are supposed to care about without even being introduced to, and the choppiness of of the story pacing makes a lot more sense.
I’d like to talk a bit about the story as it relates to classic Kung Fu movies. Most of the best Kung Fu films were made in Communist China, which in addition to being plagued by Chinese racism (mostly against other Asian cultures) were always written from the perspective of the hero doing what is best for the people, and usually dies in the attempt. The villains are always working for the evil dynasties or trying to prevent the unification of China. The movie Hero is a perfect example of this. The main character literally lets himself be killed in order to ensure the continued unification of China. This film however is all about gold. The bad guys want the gold, the good guys want to give the gold back to the local governor. I know it’s a minor point and one that RZA is free to argue with me, but I think the film might have benefited from a less grubby motivation.
Anyway, the story. The governor is transporting a huge shipment of gold and opts to send it through Jungle Village, a brutal town under the control of warring clans. He hires Golden Lion of the Lion clan to guard and escort the gold, but Golden Lion is betrayed and killed by his two lieutenants, who are going to steal it. Russell Crowe (Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, LA Confidential) shows up to do something(?) and steal pretty much every scene while sticking out like a square peg in a round peg factory. RZA (Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai, Bulworth, Repo Men) is the Blacksmith, a local weapons manufacturer who is saving up money to buy his lover Lady Silk (Jamie Chung-Sucker Punch, The Hangover Part II, Grown Ups) away from the local brothel run by Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu-Kill Bill Part I, Kung Fu Panda, Charlies Angels).
Ugh. Just sorting this script out is making my brain hurt. I’m going to break it down into bullet points. Golden Lion’s son the X-Blade (Rick Yune-Die Another Day, The Fast and the Furious, Snow Fall on Ceders) is out for revenge. The bad guys send Brass Body (Dave Bautista-WWE Smackdown!, House of the Rising Sun, the Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption) is hired to kill him with his ability to turn into brass. Madame Blossom convinces the bad guys to store all their gold in here trap infested death dungeon. Russell Crowe is some kind of bad ass who works for the governor. The Lion Clan kills a rival clan. The Blacksmith saves X-Blade for no apparent reason and gets his arms cut off in punishment. He then forges iron fists (oh, wait. NOW I see it…) to fight with after a long, completely incongruent flashback/origin story. He, X-Blade, and Russell Crowe all team up to attack something(?).
The stars. Martial arts movies always rock. One star. Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu both seem to have figured out that this whole thing was a joke and played their parts brilliantly in that context. One star. Some of the action was good. One star. The costumes, props, and sets were all really well done. One star. Some decent visuals and camera work. One star. Total: five stars.
The black holes. A story that looked like someone took 83 of those Magnetic Poetry word sets and threw them randomly against the worlds largest refrigerator door. One black hole. For all the good acting Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu did, the rest of the cast acted like test subjects at a Valium research center. One black hole. The fact that he was only one of two people really acting grossly exacerbated the fact that Crowe’s character (Jack Knife) was as out of place as I would be in the company of beautiful women. One black hole. Pacing and editing was like trying to handle a three year old kid who has just had a triple latte. One black hole. For every cool action scene, there were three or more that you would laugh at if you saw them in a TNMT cartoon. While some liberties can be taken with suspension of disbelief in the martial arts of a Kung Fu movie, if you reach the point that the audience is laughing at how dumb it was than you have really gone too far. One black hole. Literally no thought put into the names of the characters. A guy who turns his body into brass? Let’s just call him Brass Body. Madame Blossom, Lady Silk, X-Blade, Golden Lion, Silver Lion, Copper Lion, Poison Dagger, Jack Knife? It’s like I’m back in 6th grade playing D&D and trying to name a village full of NPCs. One black hole. An attempted homage to a great film genre that gets sidetracked into confusion hell. One black hole. A movie that is clearly a massive self gratification session for RZA. Why not just show him masturbating to pictures of himself? One black hole. A rated R movie that has sex scenes that are almost late night Skinimax in explicitness yet still manage to not show any nudity. If you are going to swim in the rated R pool just jump in the deep end. Don’t pussyfoot around. One black hole. Total: nine black holes.
A grand total of four black holes. Is it really bad? Not horrible. Like I said in the review for Resident Evil: Retribution if you like this sort of thing you might enjoy it. I will say that if they made the extended four hour version available on NetFlix I would probably watch it. Maybe without the brutal editing hammer this film would make sense and engage me more. Date movie? Hell no. Not only is this film a complete waste of time for most women, she will also see it as a massive waste of time for you and lose respect for the way you are spending your life. Bathroom break? Take your pick. If I had to specify I would say any of the Russell Crowe/Chinese prostitute sex scenes. They add absolutely nothing, show absolutely nothing, yet at the same time imply any number of images in your frustrated head. If you want to avoid being the Man With the Blue Balls you might take that moment to go relieve yourself.
Thats it. I feel bad dumping on this film. I really wanted to love it, but Hollywood had a different fate for me in mind. I think I am going to see Wreckit Ralph tonight. That looks fun. Follow me on Twitter @NerdKungFu. Any comments on this movie or my review feel free to post them here. Off topic questions and suggestions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading. Have a great day.