Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Man With the Iron Fists

Now here is a movie that, by all rights, should have been one of my favorite movies of 2012.  Apparently my love for old Chinese and Hong Kong kung-fu fantasy movies is inexplicably shared by gangsta rappers.  So director RZA* went out and made his own 70s throwback action fantasy adventure.  Its part Wuxia, part chop-socky, part Grindhouse, part over-the-top anime, and part some other film genre that I've missed somehow, in there too just for good measure.  Basically its "Kill Bill Vol. 1".  The trailers, of course, were incredible, featuring a small army of wire effects, CG, and various ridiculous ways of fighting including a Gun-Knife, a man who can turn into bronze, and a suit made out of knives.  It looked like an insane romp through ludicrous action scenes and an epic storyline to go with it.  And it was.  However... there was a catch.  This movie is a mess.

One issue with "The Man With the Iron Fists" is that we really don't have a shortage of awesome Eastern kung-fu movies these days.  In the past decade along there have been plenty:  First of all there's "Kill Bill", which needs no introduction.  "Sukiyaki Western Django" is a true grindhouse movie brought to life with a rich colorful story, no fear of coming off ridiculous, and a bizarre time-paradox cameo from Quentin Tarantino.  "Kung Fu Hustle" is more or less a live-action kung-fu cartoon but still has incredible action and great characters.  "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" is an epic Chinese Wuxia action film that features a Tang-Dynasty Sherlocke Holmes and a deep story with plenty of twists and conspiracies - of the obscure movies I just listed, this is the one I recommend the highest.  And then just for good measure, you could always watch "The Good, The Bad, and the Weird", which isn't really a kung-fu movie but is instead a Western taking place in Japanese-occupied Manchuria.  And "The Man With the Iron Fists" usage of over-the-top action and colorful ways of dealing death can be found in virtually any anime ever made.  So there are movies that try to do what RZA was working towards and do it right, these are all great.  "The Man With the Iron Fists" is merely... entertaining, and nothing else.

Essentially "The Man With the Iron Fists" is my definition of a guilty pleasure.  The action is incredible, the visuals are interesting and unique, and the movie has its own sense of style:  hip hop meets kung-fu, its great.  However, the directing, the acting, the script, and even a lot of the characters are poorly implemented.  This movie is badly bloated with a huge storyline that is far longer and complicated than it has any right to be.  There are a lot of individual fight scenes and characters that work, but the overall whole is a wreck... However, its so over-the-top.  RZA tries everything to entertain his audience, going to every extreme to make this project work.  And with that, I'm basically left in a weird case.  This movie is not good, I can't say it works, however, I can't say that its not worth seeing and will not entertain.

The problems with "Iron Fists" begin almost immediately in the first five minutes when it becomes painfully obvious that RZA had something far grander in mind than just a single hour and a half movie.  I've read that the original cut was four hours long, which the studio and co-writer Eli Roth managed to convince the director was not a good idea.  On the one hand, seeing RZA's subpar directing throughout this film, the four hour cut would probably be a worse movie all in all, ending up intolerably boring and flat.  However, when you convert four hours of film into ninety minutes, the result is a deeply rushed and confusing mess.  RZA, playing the lead character, narrates the opening exposition which has to explain where we, who the factions are, who RZA's character is, and why everybody is fighting.  Even then, after a ten minute sequence of exposition, we've only learned about 30% of the story, the next few scenes are so jam-packed with clunky lines of unnatural explanation - lines like "as we all know, the Wolf Clan are our enemies" - that I started to panic and feared that the movie would turn into another "The Last Airbender".

And speaking of executive meddling, the movie had to be edited down to an R, which is why there is somehow no nudity in a movie that spends half its running time in a whorehouse.  Honestly, "The Man With the Iron Fists" is probably best viewed when its director's cut gets released.  It isn't as bad as "Taken 2" or "Lock-Out" which were pathetically edited down to a PG-13, but its the same issue.

Even then, once the movie actually gets started, there's still a good twenty percent of the story that seems to have been cut out or something.  In the very last fight scene we discover one character knows Tiger Style kung-fu, and RZA sputters, "I thought your clan had been wiped out!"  Before this we have have not any Tiger Clan people, have never heard them mentioned, and I still have no idea who the Tiger dudes are.  There's one mysterious character who spends the entire movie cloaked while colluding with the villains.  In the climax he takes his cloak off, and the big twist is that he's... nobody we've ever seen before.  When your reveal leads me to wonder "WHO??" instead of being honestly shocked, then you got issues.  Apparantely this guy has history with Russell Crowe's character, making me wonder if perhaps I'm watching some kind of sequel to a movie that never got made.  That would explain why the story feels so disjointed and endlessly confusing.

My favorite plot problem comes when the movie makes a big deal about certain character deaths, when these characters have never been seen before.  For example, there's a very cool team of Wuxia-wire fighters named the "Gemini Killers" who fight with two swords and interlock together so that they can throw each other into their enemies.  They're awesome.... but they also have only one scene.  And when they're killed the camera pauses on them as if its a huge tragedy, when in fact I only just met these people!  Trust me, I feel nothing, and neither does the rest of the world.  This moment of tragedy is completely unearned.  Maybe in the first draft the Geminis had this great character arc and were so important, however, in the movie I saw, they meant nothing.  The movie also makes a big deal when Lucy Liu dies, when her character has spent most of the movie doing nothing in particular and I still have no idea which side she was actually on.  Again, its a mess.  Its such a mess that I started to wonder if this was some kind of bizarre experimental art film, or a self-parody of some kind.  Even if it wasn't trying to be funny, I know I was laughing.

Unfortunately this huge bloated plot means that most of the characters are limited to being one-dimensional at best or zero-dimensional.  Yeah, they're point particles of characterization, they have no physical depth in any direction.  This includes our poor hero, RZA.  There are a few very good performances that shine through overwise simply because the actors ham it up to an unbelievable level.  But even so, when one of the best actors in your movie turns out to be the mixed-martial artist brute that you hired just for his size, you should rethink your directing.  Like, the movie just has to tell us that RZA and this prostitute are in love when they seem to share no affection and don't even really talk to each other all that much.  Again, I still don't know if Lucy Liu was a good guy or a bad guy, or if this movie was trying for a grey area between the two - but I feel like I'm giving RZA a bit too much credit there.

The performances are mixed.  Russell Crowe, is, of course, having the time of his life playing up a British opium-addicted assassin who spends half the movie in his hotel room fucking prostitutes.  You never know which side he's on until halfway through the film, when he becomes basically the lead good guy.  He's the real star, not the Man With the Iron Fists.  That role is given to RZA himself, and he really should have rethought that one.  I think what RZA was going for was a stoic Jedi kind of thing, but it doesn't work.  RZA is simply not a man who should be in front of a camera.  There are people who have the face for acting and those who don't, some people can, others cannot.  And RZA cannot.  He's too skinny to be a believable badass, and his eyelids are constantly drooped, making me wonder if he's falling asleep out there.  Then you got Lucy Liu and the main villian, Silver Lion, hamming it up to Batman-villain levels.  I mean, its a kung-fu movie, you can go colorful and silly, so they work.  Other characters don't seem to even have lines... so whatever.

I can tell that RZA put a lot of work into crafting the intricate plotline and various characters and their art designs and wacky ways of killing people.  Its a labor of love, so I appreciate that, and that's where "The Man With the Iron Fists" shines.  Its not a beautiful movie, but its very colorful and very impressive-visually.  The action is spot-on.  People kick high, body parts fly off, and there are lots and lots of weirdo weapons.  RZA has iron fists, and that's comparatively tame compared to these other weapons.  Russell Crowe uses a Gun-Knife, which is a revolver with a blade on top.  This thing can spin so Russell Crowe can slice dudes in half, but it also shoots shurikens.  One dude has a shirt made out of knives, that can shoot out blade and grow spikes along his arms.  My favorite weapons are the interlocking Gemini swords.  So that's a plus.  "The Man With the Iron Fists" is a three-ring circus of various feats of insane bloodletting and acrobatics of death.  And that's what you come in to see.  In terms of pure action, its totally unique and wonderful.

In the end I have to say that "The Man With the Iron Fists" is basically a niche movie for a niche genre.  There are other movies like it that are much better, but its still something that Hollywood doesn't make every day.  I appreciate its manic energy and bloody action, but the execution was simply too ambitious and too bloated to ever honestly be tolerable.  It does get boring sometimes when we have to suffer through too many RZA scenes, but for the most part "The Man With the Iron Fists" is an enjoyable experience, perhaps made even more entertaining considering its obvious flaws.  Its a B-movie.  RZA, as a director, might have a better future ahead of him if he just focuses on what worked here and what didn't.  Its not a great movie, but its definitely one of the most interesting movies of 2012.

* I'm still not sure if I'm supposed to say "R - Z - A" or "Riza" or something.


  1. I'm pretty sure it's pronounced "Rizza", but not the way "pizza" is pronounced, you hear both z's

    1. I just pronounced it "AR-zuh" while reading this.