The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)
Dir. The RZA
4 out of 5
Of all the movies that have been released under the “Quentin Tarantino Presents” banner, none have felt as indebted to their loquacious benefactor as The Man with the Iron Fists. Then again, maybe that’s just because nobody else in the industry approaches kung fu movies with the same fanboy-on-steroids fervor as the RZA, the Wu Tang Clan rapper-turned-bit actor-turned feature film writer and director. Fists is arguably the year’s greatest labor of love, a kinetic valentine to the grindhouse martial arts aesthetic that shaped its creator’s artistic sensibilities.
It’s RZA’s movie through and through, especially since he also stars as the blacksmith Thaddeus in this tall tale about the lawless outpost of Jungle Village, so named for its many animal-themed clans who are constantly at war with one another. He reluctantly makes a living crafting tools of dismemberment for these ruthless thugs, but his nights are warmed by his lover Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute at the brothel run by the savvy Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). Business picks up for both of them when word gets out about an imperial convoy with passing through Jungle Village a fortune in gold. Soon the village is overrun with criminals who will stop at nothing to steal the money, drawing a hesitant Thaddeus into the fray alongside the other warriors pledged to defend the community.
This is the type of film that raises many questions with its premise. Does the gold really need to be sent through this notoriously crime-ridden village? Why does the cathouse appear to be the largest building in town? And how does a black man wind up as an expert blacksmith in 19th-century China? (That last question is one of the few for which a satisfactory explanation is proffered.) But it’s also the type of film where the answers don’t really matter as long as it keeps delivering madcap, inventive martial arts brawls at a steady clip. By that standard, Fists is a rousing success. The story is merely a license for licentiousness, an imperative enhanced by deliciously hammy performances from Byron Mann as the callous Silver Lion (complete with resplendent mane) and Russell Crowe as Jack Knife, a gentleman assassin with a vicious mean streak roiling just beneath his cheerfully perverse exterior.
Though its creator is no stranger to Hollywood, The Man with the Iron Fists has the nervy feel of outsider art. That’s not to suggest it’s unpolished – the stuntwork shines through frenetic editing, and the costuming and hairstyling is award-worthy – but it has a blind confidence in the RZA’s and co-writer Eli Roth's wild imaginations. The pair tosses several movies’ worth of ideas at the screen, with enough of them sticking to justify the whole kitschy-kitchen sink enterprise. And although Fists won’t make a leading man out of the RZA, it’s an impressive all-around debut that reveals his potential as a visual stylist – he and director of photography Chi Ying Chan choreograph several striking sequences, including a balletic scrum between Silver Lion’s henchmen and Taoist warrior twins that playfully references the symbols of the latter pair’s philosophical beliefs. It’s just one of many pleasing flourishes in a film that finds an avid fan and filmmaker relying on both his acquired knowledge of kung fu films and his unbridled imagination to leave his own indelible mark on the genre.