By Shane M. Dallmann
I first became aware of The RZA when he supplied the soundtrack to the astonishing GHOST DOG: WAY OF THE SAMURAI quite some time ago–it didn’t take me long to learn about the Wu-Tang Clan and his/their fascination with Chinese martial arts movies. And I’ve enjoyed Eli Roth’s various “homage” movies all the way back to CABIN FEVER. As such, I figured the RZA/Roth screenwriting collaboration on the full-bore 70s martial arts tribute THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS as a “sure thing,” or at the very least, a “guilty pleasure.” Unfortunately, “missed opportunity” is closer to the truth.
Okay, we’ve got the Chinese village known as “Jungle,” in which a variety of animal-themed clans (Lions, Wolves, Hyenas, what have you) wage constant warfare. The latest bit of Jungle treachery (over a huge shipment of gold) has resulted in the murder of the father of one Zen Yi (Rick Yune) and set him on the vengeance trail. Also arriving in Jungle around that time are such characters as British adventurer Mr. Knife (“You can call me Jack,” says Russell Crowe in an admittedly terrific introductory scene), the Gemini Killers, Poison Dagger, and of course (as you no doubt noticed in the trailers), former WWE champion David Bautista in quite the entertaining turn as “Brass Body.” Meanwhile, Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu) observes all of the above while keeping charge of her all-important “entertainment” business. And RZA himself? He’s the weapons-forging blacksmith caught in the middle…
With all of this going on (and, of course, with Russell Crowe being there), I figured we were headed for a martial arts tournament straight out of Sam Raimi’s THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. Nothing so organized. The various characters collide and attempt to wipe each other out from the word ‘go,’ and this is acceptable enough for a while, as the film offers plenty of innovative weapons (and places to hide them) and free-flowing gore (mostly CGI, but that’s good enough for the requisite SHOGUN ASSASSIN tribute) until the whole thing grinds to a halt to make way for RZA (who also directed) to introduce himself as the ostensible main character. The problem is that he’s the least interesting character in the entire movie. Sure, the emancipated (but still fugitive) American slave who finds himself washed ashore in China could have been vital and fascinating, but here he’s given such a generic, bare-bones backstory that the cameos by Pam Grier and Gordon Liu barely even register (let alone matter) along the way.
Nevertheless, we find out where the blacksmith came from, and then it’s time to find out just what he’s going to do to resolve the chaotic storyline. And things get reasonably fun again (thanks to the “supporting” characters, especially Byron Mann as the hissably villainous Silver Lion), but never do they truly come together for the exhilarating epic this could and should have been. In short, aside from the lovingly-created period setting, there is absolutely nothing here that “presenter” Quentin Tarantino didn’t already do better in KILL BILL (both halves), and I’m far more intrigued to find out what he did with similar themes in a spaghetti-western format in DJANGO UNCHAINED next month.
If you thought GRINDHOUSE was a good drive-in double bill, then THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS would squeak by as the “weekends only” third feature. But not much else. Sorry.