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.
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