A grindhouse-style martial arts film written by, directed by, and starring Wu-Tang Clan rapper RZA, The Man with the Iron Fists tells the story of an ex-slave blacksmith (RZA) in 19th Century China who gets caught up in a conflict between the Lion Clan and their enemies over a huge shipment of gold. The action revolves around a brothel managed by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), not least because a mysterious British man, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), has made his base there in order to keep an eye on everything that’s going on. It’s basically Kill Bill meets Django Unchained, but nowhere near as good as that sounds.
The main problem is one of tone. The fights are ridiculous and over the top, with heads getting casually punched off and fountains of scarlet blood all over the place. But everything else is deadly serious and seems to be trying to be genuinely dramatic; the clash between the two would be bad enough on its own, and it’s not helped by the incoherence of the story and the fact that the only character who’s particularly interesting is Jack Knife. The script isn’t strong enough for serious drama, and the silliness isn’t consistent enough for a proper grindhouse pastiche, even working on the assumption that you’re not sick of the grindhouse aesthetic by this point.
A lot of the problem is RZA, unfortunately. He barely even appears until about an hour into the film, and doesn’t seem capable of expressing any emotion other than po-faced solemnity when he actually does show up. Russell Crowe is the saving grace of pretty much the whole film, since he seems to be the only one who knows just how absurd the whole thing is. Wielding a knife that spins and shoots sharp circles of metal, and introducing himself by bellowing MY NAME IS MISTER KNIFE!, he’s actually having some fun with his role, which is more than can be said for most of the rest of the cast, with the admitted exception of Byron Mann, who is amusing as the main villain.
The fights themselves are fun, at least, even if there’s only about three of them before the big action finale “ and one of those is the opening credits. They’re as violent as you’d expect from a film which lists both Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth in the credits, and are genuinely very creative at times, not least in the weaponry, from Crowe’s aforementioned knife/pistol, to Rick Yune’s sword-sprouting suit of armour, to Liu’s bladed fan. The fights aren’t anything groundbreaking, but they’re entertaining enough until the film decides it wants to be serious again. Main characters do die, accompanied by sad close-ups and mournful music, but it makes no impact because we barely know who these people are. The worst case is the Geminis, two warriors sent to escort the gold shipment, whose death is treated as a deeply tragic moment “ but they only entered the film five minutes previous, so what does it matter?
It’s not a film which one should ask questions about, but it’s hard not to a lot of the time. Is Brass Body’s (David Bautista) body actually made of brass or is he just really, really strong? Since the titular Iron Fists are capable of hurting Brass Body, why hasn’t it occurred to anyone else to use blunt weapons against him prior to now? Why is there a hall of mirrors underneath the brothel, apart from the fact that the film wants to riff on Enter the Dragon? And why the hell doesn’t the blacksmith just pack up and leave town as soon as things start to get ugly? He has absolutely no reason to stick around, and could easily have avoided getting his arms cut off and having to replace them with the Iron Fists.
If The Man with the Iron Fists had been happy to just be a stupid kung fu movie, it would have been much better, but in trying to have its cake and eat it too, it loses an awful lot of its entertainment value. It’s weirdly boring at times, which is what gives the audience time to think of questions like those listed above. It should have been a lot more fun than it is.