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I would not say I know the RZA, but I've sure seen a lot of kung-fu movies with him over the years. He was a regular at the Tarantino festivals in Austin, and perhaps the most insane, over-the-top, how-the-hell-does-this-exist kung-fu film I've ever seen with an audience was one of those screenings where he was right there with the rest of us, freaking out at every single great moment in "A Fistful Of Talons," including what may well be the craziest ending I've ever seen in a film.
That's not an exaggeration, either. The ending of that movie is one of the few things I've ever seen in a theater that made me leap to my feet, as if I were physically involved in what I was watching. It is sheer madness, and the audacity and the unashamed uber-violence… that all played into what an amazing shared moment it was. That seemed to be one of Quentin's goals as a festival programmer, that group experience, and perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to "The Man With The Iron Fists," which is a passion project directed by the RZA and co-written by him with Eli Roth, is that it feels like the sort of film that would play at a Tarantino fest, something he found on a shelf that no one else had ever seen, and it manages to pull off its ambitious goals without winking at the audience or becoming a mere post-modern exercise.
"The Man With The Iron Fists" feels like a film you're watching late at night, and you're sort of hazy and the film is dense with characters and backstory and there's constantly something going on and even if you get lost, there's something else coming up in a few minutes that's probably going to end with someone's insides on the outside. It's a story told by a quiet, mysterious Blacksmith (RZA) who lives in a Chinese town, hiding out from his past, making his living by forging weapons for the two warring clans who are struggling for control of the area. When word comes of a shipment of the Emperor's gold that will be passing through town, everyone goes a little crazy. Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le) make their big move, killing the leader of their clan, Gold Lion (Kuan Tai Chen), and they set out to claim the gold, just like the Hyena clan does, led by the Hyena Chief (Ka-Yan Leung). Much of the intrigue takes place around the remarkable flesh palace owned and operated by Madam Blosson (Lucy Liu), and for the first half of the film, more and more characters keep showing up to try and get in on the fun. There's Jack Knife, played by Russell Crowe, and I am terrifically entertained by just how far Crowe throws himself into the character. He spends his first twenty minutes or so in the movie just banging his way through Madam Blossom's stable of gorgeous Chinese girls. He's just plain dirty, and Crowe seems to relish every filthy thing he gets to do. There's Zen Yi, the X-Blade, played by Rick Yune. There's the very odd couple, the Gemini Fighters, played by Grace Huang and Andrew Lin. There's the bizarre Bronze Skin (Dave Bautista), a fighter who can literally transform himself into metal. And all of them are willing to do anything to either get that gold or protect it.
Which brings us to the violence, and there is a lot of it. "The Man With The Iron Fists" is unapologetic about the mayhem. Bones don't just break, they shatter. Eyeballs go flying. The weapons the Blacksmith makes do terrible things to people. Throats are shredded. There are a lot of things that could serve as precedent to this film, a lot of influences sort of bouncing around in there, and while you might be able to try to play "name that influence" as you watch, that would defeat the fun of it. Yes, the RZA is a fan, and he is paying tribute to the films he loves, but he's not trying to be clever or post-modern here. There is a sincerity to "Iron Fists" that is pretty winning even when other things about the film don't work, and it's that careful avoidance of the wink that makes it work. The RZA is at his strongest in the film when it comes to the directing of the action, and when people start fighting, you can almost feel him behind the camera, pulse quickening, overjoyed at the idea of staging these fights with the help of Corey Yuen. The fights, as with many martial arts films, really are the reason to see the film, and there is a sense of pure creative abandon to those scenes.
In some ways, "The Man With The Iron Fists" feels like a hyper-condensed version of something much longer, like someone took a whole season of a TV show and cut a two hour movie out of it, but that density isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's obvious that the RZA and Eli Roth believe deeply in the world they've created, and the actors seem just as devoted to it as the filmmakers. Lucy Liu, for example, gives one of those performances that reminds me why we noticed her in the first place. She is deadly and nasty and oh so funny, and her scenes with Crowe in particular are just pure hilarious pleasure. I also want to single out Byron Mann for his work as Silver Lion. He plays the character like he just escaped from a glam metal band in the '80s, and it's very funny. While I don't think the RZA is particularly adept as an actor in the more emotional scenes, every time he manages to get into the fighting, you can see him loosen up, enjoying himself enormously, and that passion is so clearly communicated by so much of the film that small complaints seem silly. "The Man With The Iron Fists" may not be the most accomplished or polished film of the year, but it may be the most heartfelt, and I sincerely hope this is not the only time we see the RZA and Eli Roth do this sort of thing together.
"The Man With The Iron Fists" opens today.