15:00 - 22nd June 2013, by Calum Waddell

The Man with the Iron Fists

Given that The Man with the Iron Fists is presented by Quentin Tarantino, and produced and co-written by Hostel helmer Eli Roth, you would be right in expecting lots of flayed-flesh and gore galore from this lavish kung-fu homage. Indeed, from the opening credits, which are a wondrous tribute to the Shaw Brothers films of old, to the numerous crushed craniums, arterial geysers and bisected bodies, The Man with the Iron Fists is ultra-violent. Of course, so were many of the classics that it wants to pay respect to - from 1967's trendsetting One Armed Swordsman through to 1970's The Chinese Boxer and beyond. However, these films were also artistic achievements and beautifully told stories. The splattered limbs were in evidence, certainly, but the Shaw Brothers - and their main rivals Golden Harvest - were about so much more than this. Unfortunately, The Man with the Iron Fists seems to have been made by a group of people unable to appreciate anything about the genre's history aside from the babes and the blood...

Directed by and starring RZA, from slacker hip-hop icons The Wu-Tang Clan, this is a movie with some interesting casting choices. The story, which is set in nineteenth century China, focuses on RZA's character - an ironsmith who makes weapons for warring clans in a time of civil war. Entering a small village during this troubled period is an opium addicted British soldier, with a taste for prostitutes, called Jack Knife (played by Russell Crowe - yes, the Russell Crowe) and a menacingly-monikered fighter known as Zen Yi, The X-Blade (Rick Yune). The X-Blade is aiming to find his father's slayer and he grimaces a great deal, which, we later learn, cannot be good. Then there is an unspeakably odd character, played by former WWE wrestling champion Dave Bautista, who can turn his entire body into metal and who likes to destroy lots of things. And then we have Charlie's Angels and Kill Bill star Lucy Liu as Madam Blossom, who owns a lavish brothel but is also capable of kicking ass.

The conflict in this carnage-ridden caper is provided by a shipment of gold, passing through the village, which everyone seems to want a slice of. From here, all hell breaks loose, any semblance of story goes out of the window, and RZA finally builds himself a pair of iron fists which, inevitably, he uses for mucho damage. These fists are most notably used in a climactic battle with man-monster Bautista, that also involves a lot of CGI effects and begins to look less like a Shaw Brothers tribute than a badly illustrated video game. RZA also gets to show that he has little in the way of acting abilities and, truthfully, should have stayed behind the camera. Crowe, meanwhile, gives us an awful English accent but - at least - provides some novelty, albeit mainly of seeing an A-list actor in the sort of silliness most men in his position would actively avoid.

The film's dialogue occasionally lapses into Mandarin but for the main part it is in English. This is understandable - The Man with the Iron Fists is a major Hollywood production - but it also results in a movie which becomes even more confusing than it already is. Can we really believe that an African-American ironsmith existed in such high profile employment in 19th century China? Would all of the locals really be able to fade in and out of two different languages? Well, no, of course not - and the presence of Bautista's superhero metal-maniac already takes this tawdry tale out of the scope of any sort of reality. However, this - once more - only indicates that the Shaw referencing is little more than surface. The old Shaw films created a kung-fu fantasy within a certain believability and, no matter how insane the plots were, that actuality of character motivation, and interaction with their immediate environment, remained grounded. At times, though, The Man with the Iron Fists seems less like a chopsocky throwback than it does a hyper-gory attempt to one-up the dopey, self-indulgent drudgery of Tarantino's own Kill Bill (complete with the same overtly patriarchal and sexed-up sense of faux-female empowerment).
That said, there are still things to like here. The period setting is atmospherically recreated and the wall-to-wall action, and brutal bloodletting, hits hard. There are some imaginative set pieces, outstanding wire-work, and long time genre-followers will likely enjoy spotting all of the nods to previous genre glories. RZA is clearly an aficionado of Hong Kong cinema - right down to a brief moment of the theme track from John Woo's The Killer appearing on the soundtrack - and it feels almost self-defeating to criticise such a clear labour of love.

Yet, the proof is in the plasma-spillage. At no point during a great Shaw Brothers slice and dice epic is one likely to check their watch. The Man with the Iron Fists, on the other hand, even with the presence of a loveable rogue like Russell Crowe in the cast, does not muster the same sense of devotion. This is an admirable misfire, then, but one which we still - oddly - recommend you check out for yourself. Indeed, something tells us that there is a cult following waiting to escape from almost every blood-caked battle scene...

Epic and idiotic but nonetheless intriguing - The Man with the Iron Fists works fine as a straightforward action outing, but fails as a Shaw Brothers blockbuster.
SCORE: 2.5/5
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