Some people think of Quentin Tarantino as a mix-master who simply imitates film genres he loves. I disagree. If you think it’s easy to emulate older movies and put a personal stamp on the results, check out The Man with the Iron Fists, directed and co-written by its star, hip hop artist and music entrepreneur RZA, who happens to be a Tarantino protégé. RZA worked hard on this film, and it’s not bad for a first feature, but it can’t hold a candle to the unpretentious martial arts fare of the 1970s and 80s it tries so hard to replicate.
RZA plays a former slave who survived a shipwreck off the coast of China, where he learned to embrace Buddhism and now works as a blacksmith, forging weapons for various feudal enemies. (I’m not making this up.) It’s not easy to keep track of who’s fighting whom and why, which is just one of the movie’s problems. The gang leaders speak mellifluous English, perhaps as an homage to the dubbing process that marked “chop-socky” films (as Variety used to call them) of long ago. CGI effects that didn’t exist in the olden days of martial arts filmmaking are grafted onto a number of action scenes—and onto a behemoth of a bad guy named Brass Body who is all but unassailable.
Then who should turn up but a smirking Russell Crowe, playing a courtly but deadly British officer named Jack Knife. He elevates the proceedings with his effortless swagger. Lucy Liu is also fun to watch as the wily madam of a popular brothel that figures in the ever-unfolding plot.
RZA’s understated performance isn’t bad, but his staging of action leaves something to be desired. Clarity is essential in a film of this type, and as often as not he gives us chaos; an attempt to use old-school multiple-screen images doesn’t help. As for the screenplay RZA crafted with Eli Roth (another Tarantino acolyte), it has both the qualities and shortcomings of a cheesy 1980s Asian action yarn. If you can’t improve on the originals, I don’t see the point of mere imitation. Frankly, I’d rather watch an old kung fu movie.