The Man with the Iron Fists | Film reviews, news & interviews
The Man with the Iron Fists
Mullets, martial arts and, yes, Russell Crowe in the directorial debut of rapper RZA
As anyone who saw The Next Three Days, A Good Year, or Proof of Life will know, Russell Crowe has frequently been one to squander his talent in mediocre or plain terrible fare. His latest, The Man with the Iron Fists, is a 1970s-inspired martial arts menagerie which makes LA Confidential feel like a very long time ago. It’s an almost literal assault on the eyes and ears – entertainingly mad and fitfully bad. But at least this time Crowe looks like he’s having a ball, and to be fair you might too.
The Man with the Iron Fists is the passion project of Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA (aka Robert Fitzgerald Diggs). It marks his debut as writer-director (the screenplay was a collaboration with Hostel’s Eli Roth) and he also ambitiously appears in the film’s title role. RZA has dipped his toe in filmic waters before, having taken on small parts in films like American Gangster, and he provided the score for Kill Bill: Vol. 1. However, it seems that his skills are spread desperately thin here: he has some flair as an action director but his script seldom delivers (even in its bad-taste aspirations) and he’s utterly lacklustre in the lead.
The messy plot sees good and bad guys converge on a small Chinese village when it plays host to a shipment of government gold. RZA (pictured right with the fists) plays the “Blacksmith”, a peaceful man and former slave, who has the dubious honour of forging the weapons for Jungle Village’s competing animal clans. Lucy Liu appears as Madam Blossom who oversees the lavish brothel which becomes the centre of the action in more ways than one. Rick Yune is Zen Yi, out to avenge his father who has been killed by his lieutenants keen to lay their hands on the booty. The gigantic WWE wrestler Dave Bautista features as the fantastical (and slightly random) Brass Body, while Crowe (a friend of RZA, if you were wondering how this possibly came about) pops up as portly Englishman Jack Knife.
RZA spent years developing the project and being schooled by his friend Quentin Tarantino. He’s well-versed in the martial arts genre and the films of the Shaw Brothers specifically, and in many ways this is an apt tribute (not least in its so-authentic-I-had-to-double-check-it-wasn’t-a-remake title). Like Kill Bill (Vols. 1 and 2), The Man with the Iron Fists mashes together martial arts flicks and westerns, which have in fact long shared plots and themes. Furthermore, the monstrous, seemingly indestructible Brass Body - who turns his flesh to brass at will - evokes video game beat ‘em ups such as Mortal Kombat and Tekken.
With many interesting characters and rivalries in play it’s a shame that the cast as a whole lacks chemistry and that they’ve failed to agree on where on the acting scale to pitch their performances. On the whole, The Man with the Iron Fists succeeds best in its moments of excess, whether it’s rocking bouffant hairstyles, skewering fat henchmen, or just presenting us gleefully with a man with actual iron fists. Crowe alternates between cringe-worthy and wonderfully game and Daniel Wu (pictured above left) gets in some fabulous eyebrow stroking as Poison Dagger. They’ve at least sussed out that in the absence of consistence and real quality it’s every actor for his or herself - and the sillier the better.
The Man with the Iron Fists is a film marred by deficiencies but just as horrors can hide their failings under scares, martial arts films can distractingly dazzle with their action and RZA delivers oodles of it. There’s plenty of daft excitement topped-off with the occasional amusing quip, so that it just about conceals a multitude of sins. Don’t get too excited though as, unlike the exhilarating, impeccably executed 13 Assassins or The Raid (which also aren’t afraid to dabble in the pretty damn ridiculous), The Man with the Iron Fists is far from an instant addition to the canon of martial arts classics. Similarly, it’s Tarantino-lite; the violence and even some of his cast members are present but it turns out it takes more than being schooled by QT to simulate his chutzpah.
- The Man with the Iron Fists is in cinemas from Friday
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Thomas Vinterberg gently examines free love's cost in 1970s Copenhagen
Bourne to run (and run and run)
Julian Temple’s flawed Eighties bomb is finally revealed as film which can’t fail to dazzle
Heard but not seen: the Hollywood legend, who has died, tells the inside story of dubbing Natalie Wood in 'West Side Story'
A long-lost world comes stunningly alive again
Mark Rylance lends moments of the sublime to standard issue Spielberg
theartsdesk recommends the half-dozen top movies out now
An ambitious, sparely told tale of 17th-century American terror
Jokes and derring-do in a galaxy far, far away
Greek masculinity is tested in wry, weird maritime comedy
Charlie Kaufman's remarkable animation sheds fresh light on the male midlife crisis
Evocative early-Seventies French drama of sexual discovery confronting traditional values