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. 27, 2014
"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" - Robert Rodriguez's hyper-stylized and hyper-violent hyper-noir - has many, many sins of its own to contemplate and consider, the most glaring of which perhaps being a severe case of tardiness. Then again, even if it was perfectly on time, "A Dame to Kill For" would still feel just as relentlessly grim, one-note and pointless.
Published Aug. 26, 2014
For about half of the year, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band calls its New Orleans namesake home, playing bright brassy jazz to the residents of the Big Easy. For the other half of the year, however, the legendary jazz band brings that cajun flavor and music across the country to cities needing a little extra kick.
Published Aug. 25, 2014
Yes, the expected dopey melodrama finds its way into "If I Stay," but it mostly plays second fiddle to an above average relationship drama, one with seemingly real characters (well, real for a teen romance) coping with seemingly real issues and problems. I didn't mind having to spend time with these dreamy young people, which is a lot more than I can say about anything Nicholas Sparks has done lately.
Published Aug. 23, 2014
There is good news for guitarist/vocalist Andrew Foys and Milwaukee music fans who landed squarely on "hated it" when it came to his band's previous name, Elusive Parallelograms: the name has run its course. The multi-genre spanning psychedelic rock band recently underwent a "reboot," kicking the old moniker to the curb and reintroducing themselves as Tapebenders - complete with an upcoming new album.
Published Aug. 21, 2014
Late night is looking bright, as the Milwaukee Film Festival announced its 2014 selections for its Cinema Hooligante program, a midnight mix for fans of all things cult, crazed and - considering the after bedtime showings - caffeinated.
Published Aug. 21, 2014
About 20 years later, Jeff Bridges has finally gotten "The Giver" to the big screen, and for a project with clearly some passion behind it, the final result is bafflingly inert, as though the film itself has been sampling the characters' daily emotional sedation.
Published Aug. 19, 2014
Author Stephen Moss only lived in Milwaukee for a little while, maybe five years or so, but he makes sure to drop by all the time nowadays - at least in literary form.
Published Aug. 18, 2014
The romantic comedy genre has taken quite the beating over the past couple of years. Luckily, thanks to a cute cast and a script that gracefully brings some fresh, sweet life to some seemingly old, fell-worn tropes, "What If" turns out to be a rare modern rom-com worth swooning over.
Published Aug. 16, 2014
In the movies, the meathead mercenaries known as The Expendables have a 100 percent completion rate for their various missions. Real life, however, is a far different story. Three movies in, "The Expendables" franchise still has yet to earn a checkmark next to the only mission it's ever had - and the only one that truly matters - since the beginning: fun.
Published Aug. 16, 2014
Let's be honest: This past week for the nation was pretty awful. It's safe to say that people could probably use a hefty dose of feel-good, and luckily, Paul Thorn is happy to oblige.