“The Man With the Iron Fists,” the directorial debut of rapper-turned film composer RZA is a treat for fans of Shaw Bros.-style kung fu and the homage to exploitation offerings of Quentin Tarantino. Consider RZA Caine (or Grasshopper as he was often called) to Tarantino’s Master Po. In this case, Grasshopper learned well and added a few moves of his own.
RZA plays The Blacksmith in 1800s China. It might seem odd to have a black man in China at that time, but it works. A shipment of gold is coming through Smith’s village and various warring clans all want it for themselves. The Blacksmith makes weapons for opposing sides but when those weapons are used to kill Gold Lion, the head of a clan asked to protect the gold, he begins to feel remorse.
While the film never reaches the all-out massacre of a scene such as the Houses of Blue Leaves fight in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill, Vol. 1,” RZA’s fight scenes are fun to watch. Some scenes—the fight between the Gemini Killers and the now less noble Lion Clan, for example—are a showcase for the most extreme brand of film martial arts one can imagine. It’s hard to believe anyone would try these moves in a real fight and that is what really turns this into an art. RZA and action coordinator Corey Yuen produced enough set pieces that any shortcomings in other areas (and there aren’t many) were overshadowed. Yuen had served in this role on such films as Jet Li’s “The Legend” and “The Expendables,” and learned his craft on Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master.”
The extremity of the fighting played right into the fists of supporting actor David Bautista, a former WWE wrestler. Baustita plays Brass Body, a hitman hired by new clan leader Silver Lion to take out Zen Yi, the son of Gold Lion. In homage to the “X-Men” character Colossus, Brass Body’s body turns to brass (no subtlety to names in a kung fu movie) whenever a fist, knife or other weapon touches him. He becomes the main rival to The Blacksmith and their final showdown not only give RZA a chance to live his kung fu dreams but lets Bautista show off a different skill set that just picking people up and throwing them.
Another highlight of the cast is Russell Crowe as Jack Knife. For much of the movie, we aren’t sure which side Jack is on or if he is just serving himself. As his character develops, we are given classic Crowe moments. The strength of Crowe comes in those moments just before violence ensues. He becomes still, quiet, and it appears he might be giving up. Then, like a volcano, he erupts, spilling forth either a slew of curse words or someone’s guts. Crowe’s silent intensity lends a weight to the film that would have been lost otherwise.
RZA shot on location in Shanghai and that authenticity allows the director to focus on other areas. Period costumes mixed with a few steampunk-style additions (Jack Knife’s weapon of choice, for example) also give credence to RZA’s vision. He accounts for himself well as a leading man, too. He won’t win any acting awards, or writing awards (he co-wrote the script with Eli Roth, another Tarantino cohort), but “The Man With the Iron Fists” should prove to studios that he is a rising star, unafraid to take chances while remaining true to his passions.
“The Man With the Iron Fists” 7 out of 10
Now showing at Yakima Cinema. For show times, click here.