Friday, November 9, 2012

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS Is a Mixed Bag of Kung-Fu Craziness


- What happens when RZA of The Wu-Tang Clan fulfills his lifelong creative ambition and makes a kung-fu movie? Well, pretty much what you'd expect. Filled with over-the-top violence and packed with homages to classics of the genre, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is obviously a labor of love. But while the movie shines with its imaginative characters and creative fight scenes, it flops when it comes to delivering a narrative that's compelling or even cohesive. Now, I myself might question how important such things are in a go-for-broke action flick. But RZA attempts to create a surprisingly complex world around his film. It's admirable that he wants to give us such a fleshed-out mythology, but he stumbles in the execution. The result is a movie where the action entertains, but the long waits between the kung-fu smackdowns prove a chore to get through. Perhaps the flick also just suffers from being released in the same year as one of the greatest martial-arts epics I've ever seen - that being The Raid. But whatever the case, while I commend RZA for working to get his vision to the big screen, I also suspect he's still got something to learn about storytelling before he can truly deliver on that vision.

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is totally over-the-top, a winking homage to the classic but sorta-insane kung-fu flicks of old. The movie references everything from Enter the Dragon to Shogun Assassin to the more recent wire-fu epics of Ang Lee and Zang Yimou. And the action scenes go for Tarantino-esque, "did-you-see-that?" shock and awe. Indeed, Tarantino is a "presenter" of the film, and Eli Roth is a co-writer and producer. And you can see where Roth may have tried to sharpen up the script by adding in a killer one-liner or two. Every so often, the movie surprised me with a great little moment of badass dialogue or killer character detail. But like I said, the fundamental structure and narrative of the movie is a bit broken. The story centers on RZA as The Blacksmith - a weapons-maker who provides swords and other pointy objects for the various feuding clans who call the township known as Jungle Village home. Keeping with that theme, the warring clans each have animal motifs, so you've got the tiger clan, the lion clan, etc. I know - it sounds sort of funky and awesome on paper, but this backstory is conveyed in ultra-clunky fashion in the movie. But anyways, there's some sort of power-grab where the head of the village is killed by his two right-hand men. Silver Lion, the new head honcho, is an evil sort of dude, and so there's a whole revolt against him ... or something. I'm not really sure, because the story of the film quickly becomes confusing and incomprehensible. I guess what's important though is that the Blacksmith, who was once an impartial independent contractor, now decides to take a stand and rise up against Silver Lion. He does so with the help of X-Blade (seriously!), the son of the murdered Lion Clan leader, and Jack Knife (seriously!), a drunken, womanizing British cowboy (yep ...) played by Russell Crowe. Yeah ... this movie is crazy.

If the film had stuck to a simple plot about a motley crew of rebels trying to take down Silver Lion, it might have worked better. But the film just keeps throwing random stuff at you to the point of bursting. There are twin warriors called The Gemini who are in the mix. They have a great fight scene, but their appearance is a complete tangent to the main plot. Lucy Lui, as Madame Blossom, runs a brothel, and switches sides a lot from good to evil and back again. There's a villain named Poison Dagger, who wears a hood and talks as if his voice has been dubbed in. Oh, and former WWE champ Dave Batista plays Brass Body, a crazy meta-human brawler who can turn his skin into indestructible metal, Colossus-style. Again - lots of interesting ideas, but there's very little sense of cohesion to any of this.

A lot of the character design in the film is actually really cool. X-Blade has a great look and cool fighting style. The Gemini do this awesome Wonder Twins kung-fu thing that is a highlight. But all of the backstories feel thin, and the character motivations are weak or nonexistent. But what hurts is that there are so many moments in the film that *could* have been flat-out awesome if told more effectively. The movie finally picks up steam towards the end, when we see how The Blacksmith ultimately transforms into the iron-clad hero described in the title, and the character's epic mano e mano showdown with Batista proves worth the wait. But for a while, the movie seems to drag. And kung-fu action-fests really shouldn't drag. Part of that is the head-scratching narrative. Part of it is that there is so little drama or feeling of anything being at stake. RZA occasionally tries to jolt some life into the movie with some well-placed gore, but sometimes it just seems like a way to hide the fact that many of the action scenes - while fun - also have a strange feeling of blandness. One or two of 'em shine (the Gemini Twins' fight, the ending Blacksmith vs. Batista brawl), but even some clever fight choreography can't fully cover for RZA's lack of directorial polish or dynamism. I mean, Tarantino's name on the marquee evokes comparisons to the likes of Kill Bill, and this one doesn't even come close to Kill Bill's memorable characters, story, or action.

What it does have are some great actors who give it their all. Russell Crowe, for example, is memorable as Jack Knife. His character makes no sense, but Crowe nonetheless chews every bit of scenery for all it's worth, and is hilariously sleazy, violent, and unpredictable. Lucy Liu is in top, Kill Bill-esque form as Madame Blossom - she needs to be in more films where - as here - she kicks crazy amounts of ass. Even Batista is pretty solid here, delivering some key lines in appealingly badass fashion. The movie also employs some talented kung-fu action stars like Rick Yune (X-Blade) and Bryan Mann (Silver Lion). They bring the chops, but it's too bad they don't get more moments to shine. I will say though, Mann makes for a charismatic lead villain. As for RZA ... he's okay. He handles himself decently as The Blacksmith ... but still, he's clearly a bit rough around the edges from an acting perspective.

Where RZA shines, of course, is in the crafting of the movie's stellar soundtrack. It's no surprise that the music is a potent mixture of Wu Tang-style hip hop and Kill Bill-esque ambient tunes that evoke not just old kung-fu movies, but also spaghetti westerns (and there is, overall, a heavy Western influence here). The great music throughout the film is, honestly, what keeps it afloat even during its rougher patches.

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS has enough moments of cool action and imaginative badassery that it's worth seeing if you're a true-blue kung-fu fan. It's by and large a fun movie. I just wish that it didn't drag so much in certain segments, and that it didn't feel like such a mess from a storytelling perspective. This is a movie that would have done well to keep things simple. Yes, it's all sort of a tribute to the wild and wacky kung-fu flicks of old - but at some point, you've got to go beyond homage and carve your own path. It's that extra something that makes Tarantino's genre-mash-ups more than just greatest-hits mix tapes, but fantastic films in and of themselves. RZA doesn't qute take things to that next level, and instead crafts a film that just about collapses under its own weight. Still, it's nice to see a different voice out there making movies, and I'll never say no to a little kung-fu craziness in my moviegoing diet.

My Grade: B-

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