Maybe it was the themes of individual empowerment, spiritual brotherhood and resistance to oppression, or maybe it was just all the anti-authoritarian ass-whupping, but in the US of the 1970s, apart from blaxploitation, only kung fu movies were able consistently to woo the African-American dollar. What’s more, it was common for the two genres to mix, especially in films starring Jim Kelly or Ron Van Clief.
At that time, musician RZA (born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) was growing up in Brooklyn on a steady diet of wuxia and wire-fu. This influence is unmissable in the lyrics, the samples and even the name of his subsequent hip hop ensemble Wu-Tang Clan. He even went on to score such Eastern-inflected movies as Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
So in a sense RZA is coming full circle with The Man With The Iron Fists, which he has not only helped to score, but which also marks his debut as director, co-writer (with Eli Roth) and lead actor. It is as though a fanboy has been granted a kick-ass budget to play out all his childhood fantasies and obsessions on the big screen, and the results are a loving and lavish retro pastiche in the Tarantino style (indeed, ‘Quentin Tarantino presents’).
As a shipment of the Governor’s gold is due to pass through Jungle Village, its appointed escort Gold Lion (Kuan Tai Chen) is assassinated by his own adopted son Silver Lion (Byron Mann). So the local warring clans circle in to take power and the treasure, while mysterious Englishman Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) and invulnerable mercenary Brass Body (Dave Bautista) also come to town, and Gold Lion’s estranged son Zen Yi (Rick Yune) returns to avenge his father’s death.
All of which ensures that Blacksmith (RZA), a runaway plantation slave brought to China by the good ship Destiny, is kept busy making weapons for the vying factions, and earning the wages he needs to redeem his lover Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) from the luxurious brothel run by madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). That is until a farewell to arms leads Blacksmith to forge his “greatest weapon” and wreak a pounding vengeance.
One of many climatic duels in The Man With The Iron Fists takes place in a hall of mirrors, paying due homage to a similar sequence from the very first film to merge kung fu and blaxploitation, Enter The Dragon. In fact, the whole movie is a hall of mirrors, reflecting and diffracting not just motifs from countless Shaw Brothers films, but also from more recent movies.
The mother of RZA’s character is played by Pam Grier (Coffy), while Blacksmith’s mentor in spiritual and martial practices is played by Gordon Liu (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) – both aptly marking the filmmaker’s heritage and schooling. Even the screenplay is a tapestry of references, with distorted quotes like “Every dog has his night” or “I always take a gun to a knife fight” tripping off these characters’ tongues as readily as their blades slice through flesh and bone. It would be churlish to carp about the film’s larger-than-life performances, over-the-top lines, contrived posturing and visual excess, when clearly RZA was never aiming to forge anything like realism.
In other words, The Man With The Iron Fists is set in a postmodern echo chamber of allusions and artifice, easing its way into the sort of trash-cineliteracy previously occupied by Kill Bill, Grindhouse and Hobo With A Shotgun. Like these films, it is an affectionate recreation of the cinema of yore, but for all its inventive weaponry and varied fighting styles, its heady mêlée of sex and gore, its grand gestures and nostalgic stylings, it is also entirely lacking in any real substance of its own.
So while RZA’s film certainly accomplishes exactly what it sets out to achieve, it is still a film whose shimmering, seductive surfaces conceal no depths. Here, what you see is what you get, and while the ride is fun, viewers will be thankful that the four-hour edit originally submitted by RZA has been subjected to death by a thousand cuts, resulting in a 95-minute duration much better suited to such empty exploitation.
Anticipation: Does RZA’s kung fu style extend to writing/directing/leading?
Enjoyment: Jaw-dropping, super-fun blast from the past.
In retrospect: Already forgotten.