I’m not a rap fan. Just not my thang, I’m more into Phil Collins for any of you who had doubts that I’m not the whitest person to ever tread upon the Earth. But even I, who knows next to sweet fuck-all about rap and rap culture, can recognize that it’s gotten more substantially boring in the last decade or so.
With the rise of Gangsta rap, gone are the days when rappers had things like political opinions or interesting hobbies, replaced by a bunch of guys seemingly obsessed with acquiring shiny things and generally being horrible to women. One of the poster children of this “old guard” of rap is The RZA, founding member of Wu-Tang Clan and noted martial arts movie enthusiast, and unlike most fanboys, RZA isn’t content to sit idly in his basement re-watching One Armed Swordsman till the disk breaks.
For a while this meant RZA could regularly be found providing scores for hip-hop/martial arts fusion projects like Ghost Dog or the Afro Samurai series, but it seems the old boy’s finally stepped up a notch and made a movie of his very own.
So what’s the film? The Man with the Iron Fists, which RZA co-wrote, directed, scored and starred in. If you’re sensing that this may be a passion project, your grasp of the obvious is clearly above reproach.
Passion films are a tricky lot, and tend to be either boom or bust. A very exact mixture of passion and temperance is needed, and a healthy dose of people who aren’t afraid to tell the creator involved when he’s doing something wrong. Man with the Iron Fists had, if the film is any indicator, exactly one of these things, and the two are out to lunch. The result, sadly, is a cluttered, badly filmed mess that does manage to communicate that while RZA is very keen and knowledgeable about kung-fu movies, he’s seemingly less so when it comes to decent filmmaking.
So what’s the damn thing about? Well, the setting is the lawless fantasy/kung-fu/hiphop hybrid town of Jungle Village. Is it in a jungle? Near a jungle? Jungle-like? Well no, but it’s The RZA, don’t question him, apparently. Our protagonist is the village blacksmith, played by RZA himself, who ekes out a living making top-quality weapons for the local martial arts clans and saving enough to leave town with his lover, the prostitute Lady Silk. But see, not really, cause there’s this other guy called Zen-Yi, whose father ran the Lion Clan until he was killed by his duplicitous second in command, who then steals a shipment of the Emperor’s gold. And then there’s Russel Crowe, who spends the first thirty minutes or so having sex with lots of women and doing opium and…..yeah, the plot of this movie is a bigass mess.
It’s almost as though the film is written by someone really, really keen on old kung-fu movies, and can’t decide which old kung-fu movie stock plot he wants to use the most. Is it a revenge movie? Is it about the stolen gold? Who’s the main character of the thing, the Blacksmith or Zen-Yi, they each have about equal screentime. I kept imploring the film to make up its mind, which it answered by throwing another plot thread, character or idea at me, most of them half-baked (I could make a really obvious joke here. But I won’t. But I could.) You’d think having Eli Roth on hand to help write the damn thing would have helped reign in RZA’s impulse to throw in everything and the kitchen sink, but all he seems to add is more people getting murdered in horrible, gruesome ways.
And when it does start to make sense it really just feels like a big kid playing with some action figures. Sure, old Shaw Bros. Kung-Fu movies weren’t known for their depth or Shakespearean dialogue, but any movie where the line “I thought you were dead” is answered with the line “Reports of my demise were greatly exaggerated” isn’t trying nearly hard enough.
And as if the messy, hard to decipher plot weren’t enough, we get a nice matched set with messy, hard to decipher camera work. The fight scenes are appallingly filmed, often far too close to the action and with the kind of rapid-fire editing that makes it almost impossible to follow any of what’s going on. Sure there’s folks with all kinds of theoretically interesting powers and techniques, and the choreography is done by noted Hong Kong action veteran Corey Yuen, but if it’s all just a blur of motion and editing, the players might as well be having a very enthusiastic slap-fight.
And GOD, am I tired of terrible fight scene photography. You think I like banging my head against this brick wall and screaming at people to hold the goddamn camera steady and frame things properly? I’m starting to feel like the guy at the end of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. The original one, not the Donald Sutherland one. Although I do occasionally let out a wordless, inhuman screech at it all.
End of the day, The Man with the Iron Fists is a fan-film. It’s a very high-budget fan film with some cameos and a lot of gloss, but that’s still what it is. A movie made by a diehard fan of a given genre who hasn’t yet learned how to balance extolling his passion with making a good film. It’s basically Equinox with a high budget and Lucy Liu. For RZA, I’m sure he’s very proud of what he’s done, and he should be respected for turning his passion into productivity, but for the rest of us, it’s a sub-par fantasy kung-fu movie with all the nasty earmarks of a first time director allowed to run rampant on a passion project.
Best to just watch 36th Chamber of Shaolin or maybe Bunraku with some Wu-Tang playing in the background and save yourself the ticket price.