Don’t you hate it when a movie or some other piece of pop culture you have been waiting for—in some cases the wait feels like an eternity—finally comes out, only to leave you disappointed and dejected, barely able to (slowly) walk to your car from the theater in the dark, left only with your thoughts as they swirl about one’s brain matter in a frantic effort to deduce just what went wrong?
I sure as hell do. Those experiences suck.
Regretfully, this is how I felt last night after viewing RZA’s directorial debut, a film that has been in some level of development since the ‘90s when he created Bobby Digital and the album of the same moniker, which originally intended to be used as the soundtrack. RZA has been floating around Hollywood for sometime now, showing up in different capacities; sometimes as actor for Ridley Scott’s American Gangster or bringing the funny for Judd Apatow in Funny People. The lyrical legend has also left his stamp on the film industry as a composer with serious chops, as his score for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is nothing short of sweet, sweet candy for one’s eardrums. To any film fanatic (or causal fan of music who happens to love RZA and follow his career closely), it was becoming readily apparent that he was biding his time, soaking up cinematic knowledge from the masters of the medium he associated with (Jarmusch, Tarantino, etc.) in preparation for the time a studio would be good enough to entrust him with a film production of his own.
And for those who know anything about him or the Wu should have had no doubt in their minds as to what genre he would take on. Of course, I speak of Kung Fu—Grindhouse style.
RZA plays a freed slave named Thaddeus Smith, now a blacksmith in Jungle Village, China, after the ship he stowed away on encounters a brutal storm that washes him ashore, beaten but not broken, lying unconscious amid the vessel’s remnants. His love interest goes by the handle of Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute by trade–employed at the Pink Blossom brothel–and as soon as they save enough funds, they plan to run away together. Of course, as it often does, fate has other plans and Thaddeus gets caught up in some serious Chinese shit when he helps out an injured Chinese warrior named Zen-Yi the X-Blade (Rick Yune, the black hole of charisma), who’s trying to get revenge on Silver Lion for sending his father, Golden Lion (Chen Kuan-tai, Iron Monkey), to an early grave as well as prevent him from stealing a shipment of gold. Also arriving in town is Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), a stranger with mysterious intentions, except when it comes to libations and ladies (hint: he REALLY likes both). The battle for the gold and, more important, the power that comes along with it, threatens to rip apart the town. Hopefully, Thaddeus and his new found allies can put a stop to it before too much mayhem and property damage ensues.
If you know me and my film tastes, you should know that the synopsis outlined above appeals to me greatly. If a movie has characters going by the handle of Angry Hippo or Brass Body, features wire work by the legendary Cory Yuen, and pays homage to the cinematic output of the Shaw Brothers (man, RZA nails the shaky opening credits and old-school freeze frame of the end title card) and the movies found down on 42nd Street in its hayday, that’s fine by me, just tell me when and where to be and I’ll be the first to line up. That being said, for all the things that he gets right in his directorial debut, the things RZA botches loom large.
The number one reason this genre is so popular is the fight sequences. Fans don’t necessarily come to these films for the story or acting (but if both are good, it’s always a bonus), we come to see the stunning physicality that is on display, the lighting fast kicks and punches, the often-times vicious stunt work of the extras, and, most important, to take part in those moments when the audience screams out loud or jumps out of their seats together, barely able to comprehend the badassary they just saw. RZA’s camera placement and cinematography prevent this. Much like the rest of modern action films, The Man with the Iron Fists is shot much too close in, and when accompanied with the frantic editing, it becomes hard to follow the action. If he made the decision to pull the camera back a bit, the problem would be rectified and the scenes would be more enjoyable. Even more curious is his choice to keep the camera locked in too closely and using an abudence of medium shots in dialogue scenes, which wastes what looks to be wonderfully detailed period sets, perfect for wide shots that could allow the viewer a sense of the scope I’m sure he had in mind for the film. Framing is also an issue, with some expository scenes having the actors cut off on the sides of the screen, which, in my opinion, is very irritating.
Further exasperating matters is the odd choice of short fights. Who in the world ever goes to a Kung Fu movie, sits in the dark for an hour and thirty minutes, and then comes out saying:
“You know, that was a pretty kick ass movie, but the martial arts sequences should have been shorter!”
That’s like saying you don’t go to musicals to view the show-stopping set pieces. You’re supposed to show off, that’s what brings the fans in! Remember back to the House of Blue Leaves sequence at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1. I don’t recall anyone (haters excluded, remember, I’m talking about lovers of this genre) mentioning that sequence and including the thought that it was too long. These fights should be exhilarating, with the goal of taking the audience’s breath away. Hell, they may even want to applaud if you do it correctly. The fights here are best described as fun, but the issues above made it hard for me to fully invest in the film.
All that said, RZA’s personality shines through. It becomes readily apparent that he loves the world he created and that he was full of enough cool ideas that he could have made the movie 3 hours long and would still have had come choice bits left over. He took the approach of “everything including the kitchen sink” here, populating his newly created world and its characters with quirky beats and clothing choices that aren’t period specific but allow his cinematic voice to come out and play, fully uninhibited. This allows his characters to wear sunglasses because it looks cool. It allows the use of Wu Tang’s “Shame on a Nigga” to be played at just the right moment. And most important, it allows the actors freedom to really embrace the type of movie they have found themselves in, especially Crowe. As Jack Knife, the Oscar-winning thespian looks to be having the time of his life, even showing up to principle photography looking like he was in the process of playing Brando, The Island of Dr. Moreau style. I admire the actor for taking on a role that requires him to smoke a boatload of opium and ply three ladies of the night with only his beads, dildos, and devil-may-care smile. What I REALLY hope is that 5 years from now, this performance isn’t the one we pinpoint as the exact moment the actor’s career went from prestige pictures to headlining efforts more in the vein of what Cuba Gooding Jr. and Val Kilmer have been up to for the past 10 years.
This all adds up to a rather schizophrenic viewing experience, as I went from loving the film one moment to wanting to pull my hair out the next. I do hope that RZA gets another shot as a director because I do believe he can work these kinks out and deliver a Kung Fu movie that represents all the love and knowledge he posses for the genre. Sadly, The Man with the Iron Fists falls short as it ultimately becomes weighed down by the learning process of a first-time director. Hopefully, The Return of the Man with the Iron Fists will set the record straight and trumpet the arrival of a fully formed cinematic voice.