The Man With the Iron Fists is a wildly whirling martial arts spectacle with an endless array of exotic knives, a penchant for Zen philosophizing, and an unquenchable thirst for blood. It may just be one of the best bad movies ever.
I do not confer such infamy lightly, but the flaws are far more amusing than infuriating and its director/writer/star, RZA of Wu-Tang Clan fame, is mesmerizing. There is nothing subtle about the film, including its abject devotion to classic kung fu fare. It has the backing of another martial arts fanatic in Quentin Tarantino, though Fists never gets close to the director’s own brilliant kung fu homage, Kill Bill.
Through the morass, you can see that RZA has good instincts for grand theater, while the filmmaking itself is raw and in serious need of refining. It’s why the look of the film — a blend of French Baroque and ancient China — is quite beautiful and the martial arts choreography intriguing in its excess. But the first-time filmmaker doesn’t yet know how to handle his actors, and the performances are terribly uneven as a result.
The one thing Fists does frequently, if not always well, is spill blood and expose guts. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone’s throat ripped out so literally. Meanwhile the blood is so thin it seems more like a massive black cherry Kool-Aid slick than the very life leaking out of the fallen.
The screenplay, which RZA wrote with Eli Roth, another Tarantino disciple, is a complicated one with a dizzying number of warring clans in feudal China. An enigmatic Blacksmith (RZA) — the man who will one day have the iron fists — is the central figure in the film and the narrator as well. The plot goes seriously off-course in filling in his back story, which involves slavery, a ship named Destiny, and monks. The extreme action is well-choreographed and comes courtesy of the Chinese clans that square off over stolen gold. For reasons that completely elude me, all of the action takes place in a “house of pleasure,” the Pink Blossom, run by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu).
Somehow the Blacksmith gets on the wrong side of the clans and they break from breaking one another to punish the smithy. Russell Crowe, as an Aussie mercenary named Jack Knife, ultimately helps save the Blacksmith and outfit him with those fists of iron. Suffice it to say the process is excruciatingly painful and the camera is merciless, with director of photography Chan Chi Ying not shy about going in for a close-up and delivering one of the film’s more gruesome moments.
Any way you slice it — and with all those knives there is a lot of slicing — The Man With the Iron Fists really is bad to the bone. When it goes for camp, it falls short. When it edges toward serious, it slips. There is such a twinkle in Crowe’s eyes when he turns up you get the feeling he’s in on a joke the rest of us aren’t privy to.
If you’re in a kung fu fighting mood and have some cash to burn, The Man With the Iron Fists can be something of a guilty pleasure. But RZA should keep in mind that next time around bad won’t cut it.