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Published: Sunday, 10/28/2012

Rapper/actor RZA makes career leap in martial arts film

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
RZA, right, in a scene from 'The Man with the Iron Fists.' The movie opens Friday. RZA, right, in a scene from 'The Man with the Iron Fists.' The movie opens Friday.
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When making the transition from rapper and actor to director, RZA, real name Robert Diggs, didn't need much help or advice from his friend Quentin Tarantino about filmmaking.

"[Tarantino] said, ‘Bobby, I think you're ready' and he stepped back," RZA said in a recent phone interview. "He did come to China and he did hang out on the set and one day he was like, ‘I remember you were in China in Beijing and you were taking notes watching Kill Bill. You were a student then. And now the student has become a master,' "

There's an increasing buzz surrounding The Man with the Iron Fists, which opens Friday nationwide, no doubt based on its cast, which includes Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, the impressive and imaginative martial arts action showcased in the trailers, and the "Quentin Tarantino presents" tag attached to the film as part of the marketing strategy.

But there are those simply excited for The Man with the Iron Fists because of RZA (pronounced RIZ-ZA) and the 43-years-old's decades of knowledge of martial arts movies, and what that means to the film.

The film genre became a passion of his after watching his first martial arts film at a Staten Island theater and "just becoming blown away by the action."

RZA was only 9, but by the time he was a teenager he said he really began to the understand "the philosophy of the films and the brotherhood."

"I used to walk to school with all kinds of movie ideas in my head, like if I was going to make a movie, I would make a movie like that, but I didn't take it serious. I didn't really think that was going to come to reality. I was an MC and writing lyrics."

While he's had small parts in films, RZA is best known as the Wu-Tang Clan's chief producer. The rap group's 1993 debut, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)," is a landmark in the genre, and its critical and commercial success helped launch the solo careers of fellow members including RZA, GZA, Method Man, and Ol' Dirty Bastard (ODB), who died of a heart attack in 2004. The Wu-Tang Clan released its most recent album, "Legendary Weapons," last year.

Given his knowledge of martial arts movies, it was only natural this would be his directorial launching point, and he began training himself as a filmmaker after his first acting role in Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai in 1999, and simply by hanging out with Tarantino and others in the movie business.

It was RZA who came up with The Man with the Iron Fists' story. Friend Eli Roth co-produced the movie and fleshed it out as a fully realized script, which RZA said is loaded with action as well as "some Tarantino-type twists that audiences are going to love."

The Man With the Iron Fists uses a Magnificent Seven-style set-up involving The Blacksmith (RZA), who makes weapons for a small village in 19th century China and then must unite a group of warriors and assassins to help defend their home.

Crowe plays Jackknife, a soldier addicted to opium, and Liu plays Madame Blossom. The film also features former World Heavyweight Champion-turned recent mixed martial artist Dave Bautista, UFC's Cung Le, and Taekwondo fighter Rick Yune.

"All these different people had to come with different [fighting] styles to make it work," RZA said. And when asked how much he was influenced by earlier marital arts films versus putting his own stamp on the genre, RZA said he went for a mixture of classic and unique.

"Of course I'm inspired by the old martial arts films from the '70s, '80s, and '90s," he said. "I wanted to pay homage to those movies, but I wanted to bring something new to it.

"I'm very happy with what we pulled off. I'm really proud of it," RZA added. "We got a lot of what was on the page on the screen, which is a difficult task, actually. These actors, they all have back stories, and there were some scenes we couldn't afford to shoot. But the story of these characters still sticks in your head. You feel like you know them already. I think that's because we had good actors, a good cast of people."

And speaking of the cast, how was it directing Crowe?

"It was sort of intimidating, but being that I'm an artist and I've had a chance to act in films I kind of understand what an artist wants from a director because I know what I would like from my director," RZA said. "And I think that sensibility made it all go smooth."

Given RZA's involvement in other film soundtracks, including Ghost Dog, the two-volume Kill Bill films, and the Japanese animation series Afro Samurai, it was a given that he would produce the soundtrack to his own movie as well, which features tracks by Kanye West, Ghostface Killah, The Black Keys, and members of Wu-Tang Clan. To get his Wu-Tang associates together, all he had to do was ask.

"I was busy making the score and making the music, and I've got a partner named Bob Perry who reached out to the Clan and was like, ‘RZA's so busy but he wants you guys all to do it.' And they did it. I didn't have to ask twice. The guys all came in and did their verses.

"We say ‘Wu Tang is forever.' I'm so happy that the Clan came and participated on this soundtrack."

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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