Directed by: RZA
Starring: RZA, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Rick Yune, Dave Bautista, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, Byron Mann, Daniel Wu
Rated: R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use
The moment the opening credits for “The Man with the Iron Fists” start to roll, you can tell exactly what kind of movie it is. There’s an explanatory voiceover and a massive fight, paused periodically for over-saturated, old-school-style still frames for each credit — and the credits are all in both English and Chinese. By the time it got to “Quentin Tarantino Present” (sic), I was sold. This is an homage to Hong Kong action flicks and exploitation films, a blenderized rendition of every trope and camera shot we’ve seen and loved a hundred times.
The story, which involves a shipment of government gold through a small village populated almost entirely by various gangs, is convoluted and exists mostly to provide a structure for the countless epic battles. It has familiar tropes — the gang leader overthrown by his untrustworthy second-in-command, the mysterious outsider who knows more than he says, the humble blacksmith who tries to remain neutral among all the gang warfare until something too precious to ignore is taken from him – but they are used mostly as a shorthand to make the storytelling more efficient.
What really matters are the fights, and they do not disappoint. There’s wirework, bloodspouts, and bizarre weapons aplenty here, and if that’s what you love, you are in for a treat. From the mundane (swords and guns) to the mystical (a man whose skin turns to brass whenever someone strikes him), everything is dialed up at least a couple of notches. These fights are packed with references to other martial arts films, too, invoking both classic and obscure examples of the genre.
The performances range from solid to excellent, although because this is a B-movie, “excellent” means something a little different here than usual. Veterans Lucy Liu and Russell Crowe give wonderful demonstrations of how to be awesome in this kind of flick: both are relaxed and seem to be enjoying themselves enormously. RZA handles himself just fine as the blacksmith at the heart of the story — he errs on the side of seriousness, but because he’s one of the good guys, it works. The rest of the cast commit entirely to their roles, including the ludicrous ones, and it’s fabulous.
Really, almost every scene in “The Man with the Iron Fists” feels like co-writers RZA and Eli Roth did their level best to pack as much awesome into it as possible. Yes, it’s a ridiculous movie. There’s approximately zero authenticity in terms of history or culture, and it’s easy to complain that hip-hop music has no place in a martial arts flick set in historical China. But this is not a movie for sticklers or purists, this is a movie for people who like their genres mashed, who like their fights preposterously bloody, and who prefer their stories predictably epic.