Am I the only one who remembers Kung Faux? It used to run on IFC, though I’ve no idea if the show is still in production. Anyway, they’d take old martial-arts flicks and dub them with wise-ass dialogue, kind of a hip-hop version of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? It wasn’t the first time I was aware of the large African-American fandom devoted to chop-socky movies, but it sure was the funniest. RZA, the hip-hop legend who leads the Wu-Tang Clan, is a serious student of martial-arts epics, particularly the Shaw Brothers productions, the same films that kept Quentin Tarantino company on so many afternoons. Now RZA has co-written and directed (and Tarantino “presents”) The Man with the Iron Fists, an homage to thousands of hours of poorly-dubbed Asian action. He gets some blaxploitation in there, too — Pam Grier is even in it, briefly. This is almost the missing third chapter of Grindhouse, only without the fake splices.
Probably my recounting the plot would make us both stupider. It has to do with the Lion Clan and some bad Lions who kill their leader, and the good Lion who wants revenge, and some gold the bad Lions want, and there’s a brothel called the Pink Blossom run by Lucy Liu, and a beefy dude who can turn his flesh into brass, and a British soldier named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) who ambles into the middle of all this and avails himself of whatever the Pink Blossom has to offer. There’s also a blacksmith (RZA himself), a freed slave (the movie is set in the 19th century) who found himself in this village and makes weapons for bad guys so he can make enough money to get his girlfriend (Jamie Chung) off the Pink Blossom’s payroll.
We don’t go to these things for the acting, but some of the performers — especially Rick Yune as the vengeful Lion — deliver their lines in an inert manner that seems to pay tribute to the terrible dubbing of old martial-arts films. Others fare better, like Byron Mann as the wicked Silver Lion, who looks and sometimes acts like Dave Chappelle playing Prince. Crowe and Liu have fun, and RZA salts the supporting cast with venerable old-timers like Gordon Liu (no relation) and Chen Kuan-tai. I also enjoyed “the Geminis,” who escort the gold and who have joining swords that form the yin-yang symbol. The movie is undeniably colorful and action-packed, and gorier than a slaughterhouse floor. But something’s missing.
I don’t doubt RZA’s commitment to the genre, and he acquits himself smoothly enough as director — we always get a good look at what’s happening in the fight scenes, which is always a plus. But Man with the Iron Fists leaves me feeling the same way Grindhouse did, and Hot Fuzz too. I know that RZA wanted to do his martial-arts film, and he’s done it, and now he should move on; people with the talent to pay tribute to other people’s movies should really focus on making original movies. What’s missing, I think, is passion — not passion for old movies, which this film and Grindhouse have in abundance, but passion in general. For all its bloodletting and crazy action, the movie never really cuts loose. RZA never risks the excesses that sometimes made old chop-socky funny, and that Kung Faux lampooned so effectively. It feels like the work of a very serious student, not a master.
Still, I’m curious what else RZA might have in his quiver. He has a good feel for narratives of injustice, to the point where he almost masochistically gives his own character three movies’ worth of heartache before he finally gets to become the hero of the title. The film is dynamically scored, of course (by RZA and Howard Drossin). In the tiny subgenre of debuts by musicians-turned-directors, The Man with the Iron Fists ranks with Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses — which was, maybe not coincidentally, another act of worship towards grindhouse cinema. If RZA has a Devil’s Rejects in him as his second film, and if he can avoid remaking a classic, he stands a good chance of being a filmmaker to watch.