There’s some good news and some bad news. The good news is that “The Man with the Iron Fists” is a sincere love-letter to the Shaw Brothers’ martial arts films that guys like the RZA grew up loving, and it is, for the most part, a decent send-up to the genre ala “Kill Bill”.
The bad news is that it’s not the instant classic that “Kill Bill” was. Some might put that on RZA being a first time director, but there’s nothing to indicate any of the kind of loss of touch or directorial mastery seen in Tim Burton’s more recent outings. “The Man with the Iron Fists”, as it stands, is simply a good film that had potential to be a great one.
In addition to making his directorial debut with “The Man with the Iron Fists”, RZA also portrays the title character, a man known only as “Blacksmith” who goes on a revenge mission after having both arms severed. There’s plenty to get excited for here if you’re a fan of martial arts films. RZA has pulled in a laundry list of up and coming stars of the genre, including MMA champ Cung Le in the role of “Bronze Lion”, a beast of a man with lethal kicking skills.
“Ninja Assassin” star and former Olympic Taekwondo contender Rick Yune, plays Zen-Yi, and his obvious comfort in the role makes one hopeful that he will get to carry a film on his own in the near future. Lucy Liu portrays the nefarious madame of the local brothel, Madam Blossom and Byron Mann, best remembered as Ryu in the 1994 “Street Fighter” film and more recently seen in the role of Yao-fei on the CW’s “Arrow”, sinks his teeth right into the role of the film’s principal villain, Silver Lion.
Former WWE Pro-Wrestler and MMA-fighter Dave Bautista makes an impression in his first theatrical role as the Colossus-esque Brass Body. Russell Crowe anchors the cast as the rugged gunslinger Jack Knife, and despite not getting to do any martial arts, he’s arguably the most entertaining character in the entire film.
In the heart of 19th century China, an emancipated slave known only as “Blacksmith” makes his living fashioning weapons for the constantly embattled gangs of Jungle Village, hoping to one day be independently wealthy enough to buy the freedom of his prostitute girlfriend Lady Silk from the local harem. After the lieutenants of the Lion tribe, Silver Lion and Bronze Lion, murder their leader Golden Lion, with help from the local governor’s aide, Poison Dagger, they make off with a cache of gold intended for the emperor.
Golden Lion’s son, Zen Yi, sets out to avenge his father’s murder, only to be stopped by Silver Lion’s hitman Brass Body, whose flesh turns to metal upon impact. Blacksmith witnesses the brawl and agrees to forge a suit of armor for Zen-Yi out of guilt for having forged the blade that killed his father.
The Lion clans subsequently betray Blacksmith after he supplies them with weapons, chopping both of his hands off after Blacksmith refuses to divulge his relationship with Zen-Yi. Blacksmith is nursed back to health by the mysterious Jack Knife, a local tough guy who frequents the harem where Blacksmith’s girlfriend works, summoned to Jungle Village to monitor the gold by the emperor.
Blacksmith reveals to Jack Knife his past as a slave in America, and escape by boat to China where he was taken in and trained by the monks of the Shaolin Temple. Blacksmith was taught to harness his inner energy while studying at the temple, and he and Jack Knife fashion some die cast replacements for his lost hands which Blacksmith can control through the harnessing of his energy. He and Jack Knife form an alliance with Zen-Yi to bring down the Lion Clan once and for all.
With a known martial arts film fan boy making his directorial and leading man debuts here, coupled with the considerable martial arts talent he’s assembled along with famed Hong Kong action choreographer C(h)orey Yuen to tackle the film’s fight moves, the film should be a slam dunk, right? Well, the answer is a bit closer to “More or less”.
The film channels “Kill Bill” with everything from its opening credits sequence that any Shaw Brothers aficionado will dig to the geysers of blood that spurt out of everything from decapitations to paper cuts. The film was always in good hands with Corey Yuen handling the martial arts choreography, and it makes liberal use of wirework without sacrificing the intensity of the action. Yet, what holds the film back from true greatness is the fact that it feels like only half a film, which, ironically enough, it essentially is.
The original cut of the film ran 4-hours long. RZA proposed splitting it into two films, again ala “Kill Bill”, a decision that producer and co-writer Eli Roth vetoed, ultimately opting to cut the film down to an hour and a half.
Like “Kill Bill”, the film feels like its building up to an epic, blood-soaked battle of brutal revenge, only to arrive at its climax and leave the viewer saying “That was quick”. It amounts to the good guys deciding to get even with the bad guys, and setting about doing just that with few obstacles to overcome. The film feels like it was intended to have a bigger scale with a bigger payoff, yet it doesn’t build the same kind of anticipation for the final coup that “Kill Bill” spread over two films.
The fight choreography itself is more of a mixed bag than you might expect. It’s got the same kind of gory excess that is typical of the Shaw Brothers library, but the action never quite manages to reach the intensity of those films or have the same kind of “Wow!” factor. Which isn’t to say that the fights choreography is bad, but lacking in the kind of life or energy that one would hope to associate with a kung fu fan making his first movie. Perhaps it’s simply another by-product of the post-production tinkering that RZA was less than pleased with.
You can chalk it up to any number of things – being slashed from two two-hour films to one hour and a half film, too much studio interference – but whatever the reason, “The Man with the Iron Fists” is a good film that could have been a great one, and might very well have been had it not been so butchered in the editing room.
Anyone in the mood for a love letter to martial arts films would do well to keep an eye out for the likes of “Once Upon A Time in Shanghai”, an update of the Shaw Brothers film “Boxer from Shantung” with Philip Ng and Andy On stepping up to lead a new generation of Hong Kong martial arts heroes. “The Man with the Iron Fists” is one that you will probably (unfortunately!) settle for liking rather than loving.
- During a fight scene in the climax of the film, Zen-Yi slashes several opponents whose blood sprays across the screen. The spray of blood forms the Chinese character for “revenge”.
- In keeping with the film’s homage to the Shaw Brothers martial arts films, a number of Shaw Brothers veterans appear in the film – among them are Leung Ka-yan in the role of “Hyena Chief”, Chen Kuan-tai as “Golden Lion”, and Gordon Liu as “The Abbot”.
- RZA had discussed with Quentin Tarantino about crossing the film over with Tarantino’s movie “Django Unchained”. The film would have featured a younger version of the Blacksmith. However, RZA was ultimately unable to reprise his role in the film due to scheduling conflicts.
Film Rating: 6/10
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