21 December 2012

Review: The Man With the Iron Fists

(Dir: RZA, 2012)

The Man With the Iron Fists is clearly a labour of love. Directed, written by and starring RZA (aka Robert Diggs, member of the esteemed rap collective Wu-Tang Clan), this is his debut feature as a director and it's obvious that a lot of his passion went into this project, even if it does seem a bit random. Set in a village in 19th Century China, it’s about a son who must avenge his father’s death whilst different clans vie to steal a shipment of the Emperor’s gold due to pass through a village, with another faction determined to just protect the village and their way of life.

The most telling trait about The Man With the Iron Fists are two names in the credits – Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth – the former in the spurious role of “presents...” and the latter as producer, co-writer and with a small cameo. The film is a throw back to martial arts and samurai films of the seventies and eighties, think along the lines of the Lone Wolf and Cub ilk, and suffused with the grindhouse aesthetic of this era. It’s this latter element that’s telling of the involvement of Roth and Tarantino, ensuring it’s a fun film. So contrary to this in a sense, there’s an admirable attempt to have a proper story driving through the film, which unfortunately feels too convoluted at times, pulling us away from the real reason people turn up to watch a film like this anyway - to see some crazy fighting.

From the outset the film is violent and bloody, but the fight scenes are extravagantly coregraphed. There’s a strong fantastical element running throughout, meaning these scenes take on the somewhat gravity defying “wire fu” style as seen in more successful films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But there are also general story elements that embrace this too – see David Bautista’s character Brass Body, or how the titular man with the iron fists comes to be as such. Fortunately the film isn't totally swamped by these fantastical elements. The complaints I have on this side of the film come down to the editing frequently being too rapid, making it harder to fully enjoy what’s happening on screen; and you still can’t get away from how much more satisfying it is to watch practical effects than cgi – computer generated blood being one of the key irritating things here (fortunately we've at least come a long way from Blade in that regard!).

Most surprising is the presence of Russell Crowe as Jack Knife. I expected his involvement to merely be an extended cameo yet it happily turns out he's one of the lead characters. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Crowe, but he’s evidently having too much fun playing an extravagant character in a less serious film, and as such he adds a lot to it. Of the other recognisable faces, Lucy Liu and Byron Mann are also enjoyable to watch. RZA’s character is perhaps a bit too sombre and he’s not the greatest actor in the world, but at the end of the day this is the sort of film where you expect a lot of sub-average acting.

It’s pretty difficult not to enjoy The Man With the Iron Fists and if it’s a film you actively seek out, then you'll know what to expect and shouldn’t be too disappointed. There were a few occasions where I thought the direction was a bit shonky, but this is a debut and of course the nature of the film means it matters less. I do wish there had been more practical effects work however – maybe it’s just me but sometimes cgi blood and the like just look too fake and distracting, serving only to hamper enjoyment (Ninja Assassin is a prime recent example). I’m still amazed Russell Crowe was in this film, but aside from him clearly having shit loads of fun, what I liked most was the grindhouse feel that made it a little more than just a standard martial arts film. The Man With the Iron Fists isn’t anything special but it is a lot fun if you're after a modern take on this genre.

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