“The Man With the Iron Fists” is a wildly whirling martial arts spectacle with an endless array of exotic knives, a penchant for Zen philosophizing and an unquenchable thirst for blood. It may just be one of the best bad movies ever.
I do not confer such infamy lightly, but the flaws are far more amusing than infuriating and its director/writer/star, RZA of Wu-Tang Clan fame, is mesmerizing. There is nothing subtle about the film, including its abject devotion to classic kung fu fare. It has the backing of another martial arts fanatic in Quentin Tarantino, though “Fists” never gets close to the director’s own brilliant kung fu homage, “Kill Bill.”
Through the morass, you can see that RZA has good instincts for grand theater, while the filmmaking itself is raw and in serious need of refining. It’s why the look of the film — a blend of French Baroque and ancient China — is quite beautiful and the martial arts choreography intriguing in its excess. But the first-time filmmaker doesn’t yet know how to handle his actors, and the performances are terribly uneven as a result.
The one thing “Fists” does frequently, if not always well, is spill blood and expose guts. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone’s throat ripped out so literally. Meanwhile the blood is so thin it seems more like a massive black cherry Kool-Aid slick than the very life leaking out of the fallen.
The screenplay, which RZA wrote with Eli Roth, another Tarantino disciple, is a complicated one with a dizzying number of warring clans in feudal China. An assassination, a power grab and some gold digging get things roiling. For reasons that completely elude me, all of the action that follows takes place in Jungle Village, known for its “house of pleasure,” the Pink Blossom, run by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). The enigmatic Blacksmith (RZA) spends his days fashioning exotic weaponry for the various clans. His nights are wiled away with one of the Blossom’s fetching young pretties, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung).
The Blacksmith — the man who will one day have the iron fists — is the central figure in the film and the narrator as well. RZA has a silky smooth baritone that would be excellent for bedtime stories, so much does it lull you into thinking you will be able to make sense of things. The plot goes seriously off-course in filling in the Blacksmith’s back story, which involves slavery, a ship named Destiny and monks.
The extreme action is well-choreographed and comes courtesy of the Chinese clans that square off over the stolen gold. The factions are named after the animals they favor — the Lion, Hyena and Wolf clans, with a couple of Gemini thrown in to further confuse things. The force for good is little more than the one-man show of Zen Yi/The X-Blade (Rick Yune). There’s a long line in the villain column, most notably Poison Dagger (Daniel Wu), plus the many Lions and their fabulous manes — props to the makeup and hair folks for this hoot. Bronze Lion (Cung Le) and Silver Lion (Byron Mann) are the memorable ones.
The whole metal thing is something the film just can’t shake. One particularly lethal dude is called Brass Body (David Bautista); you can guess why.
Somehow the Blacksmith gets on the wrong side of the clans and they break from breaking one another to punish the smithy. Russell Crowe, as an Aussie mercenary named Jack Knife, ultimately helps save the Blacksmith and outfit him with those fists of iron. Suffice it to say the process is excruciatingly painful and the camera is merciless, with director of photography Chan Chi Ying not shy about going in for a close-up and delivering one of the film’s more gruesome moments.
Any way you slice it — and with all those knives there is a lot of slicing — “The Man With the Iron Fists” really is bad to the bone. When it goes for camp, it falls short. When it edges toward serious, it slips. There is such a twinkle in Crowe’s eyes when he turns up you get the feeling he’s in on a joke the rest of us aren’t privy to.
If you’re in a kung fu fighting mood and have some cash to burn, “The Man With the Iron Fists” can be something of a guilty pleasure. But RZA should keep in mind that next time around bad won’t cut it.