At a screening of “The Man With the Iron Fists” hosted by the Museum of the Moving Image on Thursday, rapper-turned-filmmaker RZA claimed his first inspiration came not from the martial arts movie to which his directorial debut is clearly indebted, but rather from watching “Star Wars” in his childhood.
“I believed in that world,” RZA said in his introduction. “I believed there was a galaxy far, far away where I could go. But instead, I just went to Brooklyn.”
It was an apt way to set the stage for “The Man With the Iron Fists,” a lively fantasy sporting a fierce commitment to escapism. While no “Star Wars” in terms of scale, RZA’s initial foray behind the camera (he already has a sophomore feature about Genghis Khan in the works) displays enough enthusiasm for the prospects of creating a fully realized world that it proves the sheer viability of a movie committed to its internal logic. By turns eccentric and downright silly, RZA’s pileup of martial arts and western pastiche makes little sense but shows a constant eagerness to entertain. The pieces have been aligned well: RZA was schooled in filmmaking by Quentin Tarantino when the musician produced the soundtrack for “Kill Bill,” and “Iron Fists” undoubtedly borrows more than a few pages from that postmodern kung fu western’s playbook.
Aided by screenwriter Eli Roth (whose “voice,” if you can call it that, manifests in the flashes of extreme gore that often result from various showdowns), cinematographer Chi Ying Chan (who shot “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” with similarly vivid camerawork based around outlandish fight sequences) and action choreography by Cory Yuen, RZA’s story flows naturally through each absurd twist. Set in a colorful embellishment on 19th century China, “Iron Fists” co-stars Russell Crowe as a Falstaffian opium addict from the British empire who drifts through a crime-stricken jungle village under the grasp of clan leader Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and joins forces with an enslaved weapons-maker (RZA) to restore order.
The characters assemble with the zippy energy of a child playing with action figures, much as RZA may have done with “Star Wars” toys: Crowe’s character dubs himself “The Knife” because he carries a menacing gun-knife hybrid in his pocket at all times, which basically serves to set up a gun-to-a-knife-fight gag in the climax. The man spends half the movie high on opium and cavorting with giggly prostitutes in the whorehouse run by a suave Lucy Liu, whose own weapon involves spikes that jut out of her hand fan, but he’s still a pretty likable guy (reports suggest RZA based the role on Ol’ Dirty Bastard).
RZA’s blacksmith character, an escaped slave with a rudimentary origin story to explain his presence in the village, certainly anticipates Tarantino’s upcoming “Django Unchained” for the way it empowers a black character under unlikely circumstances. The blacksmith provides the handiwork necessary to develop the titular weapon and take on the clan’s biggest warrior, a hulking figure (David Bautista) able to turn his flesh into metal. In the rowdy finale, a cavalcade of reference points all collide at once, with bodies twirling through the air, split screens speeding past from multiple angles, and the killer soundtrack reaching a fever pitch. As with Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” virtually everything we see and hear in “Iron Fists” salutes the experience of wildly entertaining cinema.
Somewhere in between the Pam Grier cameo and the hints of Ennio Morricone references amidst the generally modern soundtrack, I gave up trying to keep track of all winks and nods and instead scribbled “Sukiyaki Badasssss Yojango.” If you can pick that apart to figure out the titles within, you might get a sense for the vivid jammed-togetherness that defines “Iron Fists.”
Although technically a part of the retroactive grindhouse cinema that Tarantino and his ilk have ushered into theaters in the past decade, “Iron Fists” does reflect a generation reared on the likes of “Star Wars,” the ultimate mainstream standard for cinematic fantasy over the past 35 years. The timing is particularly apt, since “Iron Fists” arrives in theaters mere days after Disney announced its instantly historic acquisition of Lucasfilm and the entire “Star Wars” universe along with it. The news arrived with the promise of more “Star Wars” movies before the end of the decade. Suddenly that galaxy isn’t so far away anymore.
The anticipation of yet another chapter in the saga that will not die led many movie lovers (myself included) to immediately pontificate on the best director to helm the next entry. (Maybe they should get RZA on the line.) This type of mogul role playing is amusing, but ultimately irrelevant, because movies like “Iron Fists” prove that “Star Wars” has not only set the bar for fantasy and science fiction films but fueled several generations’ worth of enthusiasm for otherworldly narrative storytelling.
When Hollywood gives us franchises that work artistically, the filmmakers inspired to harness the power they receive from being inspired by those works should direct it elsewhere. We no longer need “Star Wars”; we need the people inspired by “Star Wars” to keep thinking about how to use their creativity to innovative ends. Otherwise, better movies will get buried by tentpoles with diminishing returns. That’s a old truism audiences tend to accept as an immovable marketplace standard, but there’s always room for an enterprising filmmaker to swing back with an iron fist of innovation. The Disney/Lucas news proves that the battle rages on.