There's a place in the world for sleazy, fun, no-holds-barred entertainment that hopes to thrill audiences with insane action and old-school genre references. In fact, film nerd hero Quentin Tarantino has made a career lately out of perfecting the grade-A B-movie, combining hyper-intelligent dialogue, memorable characters and eye-popping set pieces to create something fresh. Even if you don't know what he's riffing on in films like "Kill Bill," "Grindhouse" or "Inglourious Basterds," there's still a lot to enjoy.
Unfortunately, for every good movie of this ilk, there are several imitators that attempt to pull off the same trick but fall on their faces. This is where "The Man with the Iron Fists" sadly comes in.
Russell Crowe stars as Jack Knife (the movie comes from the "Expendables 2" school of ridiculous badass names), a hedonistic British soldier in 19th century China hoping to make away with a massive gold shipment. Unfortunately, he's not the only one in town with his eyes on the gold. The Lion Clan, led by the traitorous Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and his henchman, Brass Body (WWE star Dave Bautista), is also in town, hoping to come away with the treasure.
Along the way, "The Man with the Iron Fists" picks up more subplots and characters including Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) – the X-Blade as he's commonly known in the film – who is seeking revenge for the Lion Clan killing his father. And then there's the title character (played by RZA), who before gaining his fists of metallic fury is a lowly blacksmith making weapons in the hopes of one day running off with his prostitute girlfriend Lady Silk ("The Hangover Part II"'s Jamie Chung).
There are a lot of characters in "The Man with the Iron Fists," but at the same time, there aren't really any characters. They may bleed blood and have fists of iron, but they're pure cardboard, solely existing to kill or be killed with minimal development. The goal may have been to create a large, immersive universe of unique individuals, but since their roles are given such little material, all the bloodshed in the world can't make them interesting.
RZA, who serves as writer, director and star, has his heart in the right place. The Wu-Tang Clan leader, producer and soundtrack composer has always had an interest in kung-fu and the movies inspired by the martial art. When RZA's blacksmith learns kung-fu in a Chinese monastery (in a rare instance of character development), you can tell he really cares about the philosophy and the history of the genre, not just the blood – though he certainly cares about that too.
Unfortunately, though his passion may be sincere, his performance lacks any on-screen charisma, and for a main character, that's more lethal than a poison dart to the throat. As his romantic interest, Chung matches his dull performance note for note, making it hard to care about the chemistry-devoid lovebirds.
The rest of the actors don't make much more of an impact. Yune's leather suit of hidden knives and blades has more depth and intrigue than his performance, and none of the villains are particularly menacing or memorable, despite their awesomely over-the-top retro hair-dos. The only one who manages to bring some color to his character is Crowe, but even his story arc seems barely fleshed out.
They aren't helped by a nearly absent story and a witless screenplay story. "There's no reason for your journey to end here ... and by that, I mean your life journey" is the film's impersonation of clever tough guy dialogue. My hated useless voiceover (provided by RZA's gruff monotone) also makes an extended appearance. It may be from the kung-fu movies that inspired "Iron Fists," but ironically bad writing is still bad writing.
Almost all of this could be forgiven if the movie's main reason for existence – the action – was more fun. Most of the action scenes are rendered incomprehensible by some severely choppy editing. It's too bad because when in the few moments when you're able to make it out, the kung-fu and wirework looks impressive. When you're working so hard to decipher what's happening, however, it's hard to get much of a thrill, even with all of the gushing blood and severed heads.
Without decent action, it ends up being yet another case of a Tarantino-esque movie that has his references and homage-laden style but forgets the actual content – the characters, the tension, the dialogue – that makes his movies so memorable. It's the difference between a Tarantino film and one, like "The Man with the Iron Fists," that he's just presenting.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Aug. 31, 2015
The former Goldmann's Department Store is in the process of becoming the new home to the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center. As a part of the renovation process, however, its iconic sign was taken down. After spending some time for sale in the construction lot, the popular Milwaukee and Mitchell Street landmark has found a new home. But, not in Milwaukee.
Published Aug. 27, 2015
Growing up, the Bay View-based toy maker Peggy Brown has plenty of memories of the classic board game Operation - and her family didn't even own it. Decades later, Brown - along with her friend and fellow toy maker Tim Walsh - are trying to give something back to the man whose legendarily buzz-worthy game gave them so many fun times and fond memories over the years with the documentary "Buzz Heard 'Round the World."
Published Aug. 27, 2015
Considering its reputation as Milwaukee's haunted bar, Shaker's Cigar Bar, located at 422 S. 2nd St., certainly knows a thing or two about old stories coming to life. After giving plenty of historical tours through the years and guiding eager guests to some of the city's ghosts, bar owner Bob Weiss and marketing director Amanda Morden are hoping they've found a new way to resurrect some of Milwaukee's old tales of yore: Hangman Radio.
Published Aug. 26, 2015
Now, with their Internet comedy series "Shangri-L.A.," Milwaukee-grown filmmakers Drew Rosas and Nick Sommer ("Billy Club," "Pester") are the latest to go in search of the worldly utopia. Well, kind of, as the search for dreams brings them to the very real city of Los Angeles - and to Kickstarter to help finish the 11 episode production.
Published Aug. 25, 2015
Yes, the Packers will probably be just fine without Jordy Nelson, who's done for the year with a significant right knee injury. But sometimes, you just need to grieve ... with a collection of Dubsmashes from Olivia Munn and Aaron Rodgers from before the injury that eerily fit this time of great sadness.
Published Aug. 23, 2015
If you're planning on riffing off of one of Hollywood's greatest director's greatest movies, you better know what you're doing. Luckily, the man behind "Phoenix" is the extremely talented German director Christian Petzold, who smartly takes a touch of Hitchcock and twists it into an impressive project all of his own, a brilliantly crafted modern post-war noir carefully cloaked in mystery that slowly but satisfyingly burns to a quiet fireworks display of a finale.
Published Aug. 22, 2015
The jazzy retro style of Guy Ritchie's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." is slinky fun, but enjoy it while you can because, like a toddler, if you take your eyes off it for a second to grab your drink or glance at your watch or merely blink, it is gone, a whooshing little breeze where it once used to be on screen and in your mind. The projector might as well be one of those neuralizers from "Men in Black."
Published Aug. 19, 2015
Dieter Sturm may not be a household name, but for about 30 years, his work has been all over some of your favorite Hollywood movies. Yes, fitting for a Wisconsinite, Sturm's business is snow, and when a Hollywood production needs to call in anything from a flurry to a blizzard, Sturm and his Lake Geneva-based company Sturm Special Effects bring the storm.
Published Aug. 18, 2015
The first time Indianapolis native and "Big Lebowski" superfan Tom Esterline, Jr. saw the 1998 Coen Brothers cult classic, well, he fell asleep. But then he watched it again. And again. And again and again and so on until he became a superfan - an Achiever - decked in his finest Pendleton sweater and attending as many Lebowski Fests as possible - the next one located right here in Milwaukee this weekend at Cathedral Square Park.
Published Aug. 18, 2015
The combination of bagpipes and didgeridoo is an almost impossibly rare mix - one that belongs almost exclusively to Brother. Unfortunately, the band's upcoming return to River Rhythms on Wednesday night will likely be the final one of its kind, as lead singer Angus Richardson recently announced that he was stepping away from the band. Before his likely final Milwaukee show, we chatted with Richardson and reflect on saying goodbye to Brother.