Exotic ancient China; powerful, feuding warriors; a devious brothel proprietress. A generous helping of magic-realism à la wuxia tradition (think Crouching Tiger or Hero). Top-tier Hollywood talent. The cinematic debut of a well-known creative voice, Wu-Tang Clan frontman RZA.
To look at the elements, the potential is there.
But The Man With The Iron Fists, which RZA co-wrote with Hostel’s Eli Roth – that might have something to do with the sheer amount of mutilating violence – is a colossal misfire, amounting to nothing more than a soup of references devoid of cohesive storytelling let alone any deeper meaning or emotion, a sort of amateur Tarantino flick made in the kung-fu sandbox by someone with lots of stock in computer-generated blood rendering software.
The plot takes a page from the Smokin’ Aces playbook, establishing a bunch of colourful characters and then setting them on a violent collision course with an eye for maximum fireworks but not much else besides.
RZA plays a blacksmith who forges weapons for the usual evil warlord types because with enough money he can rescue the woman he loves from servitude in the local brothel. When the very same warlords steal a trove of government money and begin shedding blood – what really counts is that they hire a giant, metal-skinned henchman to beat up their enemies – he sees an opportunity to redeem himself.
Unfortunately, the blacksmith – named Thaddeus and given a brief, black-and-white back-story as a freed slave – is a mumbling absentee of a protagonist the audience has scarcely any reason to identify with. He has the slightest screen presence of all the major players and the least memorable combat scenes despite ostensibly headlining the film.
Meanwhile, a lecherous British soldier (Russell Crowe, who is having more fun than anyone playing drunk for much of the movie) and the brothel’s cunning madam (cunning because it is Lucy Liu in the role, though she deserves much better) figure mysteriously into the approaching confrontation.
The long and the short of it – and its consuming incoherence is certainly more majestic drawn out over 96 minutes on an enormous screen – is that the storytellers wanted to arrive at an epic confrontation between good guys and bad guys but had no idea how to set it up effectively.
Then it happens, then it’s over, and the audience realizes that at no point in this fragmentary jumble did anything seem to matter one whit.
Every possible cliché is trotted out for the camera like a lamb to the slaughter, from large-scale plot devices down to lines of dialogue that could have been written by thumbing through a Rolodex of movie aphorisms.
This is homage roughly to the same extent that it could be considered parody – completely inept is what it really is, primarily (one can surmise) due to the lack of a director effective and knowledgeable in that role. Instead, RZA tosses ideas at the screen haphazardly, hoping by odds alone some of it will stick.
For instance, a recurrent steam-punk aesthetic meshes awkwardly with the backdrop of period China, their inconsistency complicated further by the intermittent, hyper-violent fantasy elements and topped off with a highly incongruous soundtrack of heavy-duty Wu-Tang hip-hop.
No expense was spared, you have to give them that much: Oscar-winner Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu are on hand to support RZA, and the martial arts talent includes Byron Mann (Street Fighter), Rick Yune (The Fast and the Furious), UFC’s Cung Le, and hulking former professional wrestler David Batista, with choreography by Cory Yuen (The Transporter).
But since the finished movie plays like a slipshod grindhouse/blaxploitation remix of RZA’s favourite shelf of vintage kung-fu films, which is to say like an unbearably bad spoof, it is difficult to pick out redeeming qualities from amid the muddle of vacuous money-shots.
Bearing similarity on a number of levels to Zack Snyder’s disappointing Sucker Punch – including that, amid all manner of derivative rubbish, it evinces just a bit of nice cinematography and a few good ideas – this is the kind of ego-driven artistic brainchild that should never be allowed to come to term.