Before he called himself RZA and conquered a big swath of the hip-hop world, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs was a teenager in New York, escaping his rough childhood by watching kung fu movies at theaters in Times Square. His love of things Chinese colored his music career and provided the vision behind The Wu-Tang Clan, the rap collective that first made his name. It also led him to collaborate with movie directors who shared his interest in martial-arts cinema — Jim Jarmusch in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Quentin Tarantino in the Kill Bill movies. Now RZA (pronounced “rizzah,” for those of you not up on your hip-hop) has directed a kung fu movie of his own. The Man With the Iron Fists evokes the China of his mind, a place of silk and jade and badasses spouting Buddhist philosophy. This movie is a mainline into RZA’s fecund imagination. Sadly, that’s not enough to make it good.
The movie is set in a town called Jungle Village in the mythic past. When the emperor sends a shipment of gold through town, all sorts of unsavory types look to protect or plunder the treasure, including a clan of lion-maned warriors, twin contract assassins (Andrew Lin and Grace Huang), a European guy whose skin turns to metal when he’s attacked (Dave Bautista), a fighter (Rick Yune) whose suit of armor is covered in retractable blades, and a rogue British soldier calling himself Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), who strides into Jungle Village’s brothel and casually guts a fat customer so he can engage the guy’s whore. The brothel’s elegant madam (Lucy Liu) finds that last bit rather amusing, by the way. With all these killers milling about, more bloodshed is sure to ensue, and so it does, copiously.
With the help of cinematographer Chan Chi-Ying, the director gives this movie the grainy look of a 1970s-vintage martial-arts flick. Most of the action takes place in the extravagantly decorated brothel, and RZA knows how this place looks and how it sounds. The trouble is, other rudiments of filmmaking slip through his grasp. The fight choreography by Cory Yuen (who worked with Jet Li during his glory years) is so choppily edited that RZA seems to have slashed his own canvases. The director has no sense of tone, and the moments of comic relief bring no relief because there’s no tension in the first place. Even though the movie is supposed to build toward an epic showdown between all the good guys and bad guys, the scenes at the end feel no different than the ones at the beginning. RZA also disastrously casts himself in the lead role, as the village’s stoic, troubled weaponsmith who has to take sides in the battle, and he’s not nearly actor enough to put that over. Music historians will undoubtedly find The Man With the Iron Fists to be a valuable document of this seminal musician’s influences and obsessions, but as a piece of entertainment, it’s flat.
The Man With the Iron Fists
Starring RZA and Russell Crowe. Directed by RZA. Written by RZA and Eli Roth. Rated R.