It’s obvious that the people behind The Man with the Iron Fists like the martial arts genre of films. This is an homage to them — a love-letter that is about as entertaining as the bottom tier of the genre to whom it wishes to become a love letter. This is an absolute disaster of a movie, and not even in a good way. It’s just bad, with about every decision made working against whatever the filmmakers were trying to pull off. This is the worst movie that I have seen in 2012.
A lot of the problem seems to be with director/writer/composer/lead actor RZA, the rapper whose best known work is with the Wu-Tang Clan. He occasionally acts, and is given the directorial role here, too. He plays a blacksmith in nineteenth century China, whose main purpose is to create weapons to warring factions, and also become — after the majority of the film is over and he’s done absolutely nothing of importance — the man with the iron fists. He gets to use them in three whole scenes, and if he didn’t provide the voiceover narration, I would consider his character useless.
Speaking of the narration, it seemed like it was added late in the post-production process in an attempt to explain the movie to the audience. The Man with the Iron Fists still doesn’t make a lick of sense, by the way, but RZA, in as monotone and mumbling manner of speech possible — probably because he didn’t want it in there and was forced to add it by the studio in an attempt to salvage this train wreck — gets to narrate for what seems like at least a quarter of the time this movie plays.
Other characters include: X-Blade (Rick Yune), who dons armor that can shoot spikes; Mr. Knife (Russell Crowe), who has a purpose revealed late in the movie but mostly seems to be in here so that Crowe can be next to beautiful women for the majority of his screen time; Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), who owns a brothel; Brass Body (David Bautista), whose body is impenetrable by most everything because it’s made of brass; Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), the Blacksmith’s girlfriend and nothing else of important; and the Silver Lion (Byron Mann), the leader of one of the warring factions.
If you wanted me to try to fit everyone into teams and figure out their relations to each other, I wouldn’t be able to. Some characters barely get introduced before they die or leave for too long to even matter, while others change motivations part way through, making it hard to even know who’s fighting for what at any given time. This goes on for the entire first hour before everyone finally figures out their side for a big battle in the final 30 minutes. No, it still isn’t as good as that massive battle in the first Kill Bill, although it might be a bit more creative.
The action scenes, the few that we get, are separated by extended sequences of exposition, which attempt to explain what the narration can’t, but also fail at the simple task of telling us what’s going on. When we finally get action, it’s sometimes fun, but the wire-fu is often so bad, and RZA’s style is incomprehensible that it’s best to just wait until the action scenes end to figure out who lived and who didn’t.
Part of the problem is that the film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. It has a couple of scenes — flashbacks which are supposed to reveal a character’s back story but add absolutely nothing — that bring us an anti-racism message, but the rest of the film has no indication of that at all. There is a whole sequence of woman’s empowerment, but then that’s dropped instantaneously. Certain motivations are revealed way later than they should be — there was no reason to hide them — while other reveals are so anti-climactic that you have to wonder why it was handled in this manner.
And it’s all set to a soundtrack made by RZA, meaning we have hip-hop music playing over both action and dialogue scenes set in 1800 China, featuring a multicultural — but still predominantly Asian — cast. It not only doesn’t fit, but it’s loud and obnoxious enough to draw attention to itself, effectively removing any impact or enjoyability that the action scenes had.
The cast is so laughably bad that it’s almost funny to see them try to act out the screenplay by RZA and one Eli Roth — who is also a producer and makes a cameo. RZA is the absolute worst, showing absolutely nothing but a complete deadpan stare toward whoever might possibly be talking. Rick Yune is the next worst, whose “I will avenge my father” line is so laughably awful that … I still remember it, I guess. Crowe seems to be enjoying himself, and he and Liu share a couple of comedic scenes, but that’s about the only thing this film has going for it.
RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists is a film that has absolutely nothing going for it, and contains not a single reason for you to watch it. This homage — which purportedly started as a four-hour “epic” and was trimmed down to the 96-minute disaster that was released — to the martial arts genre is worse than the vast majority of the films it aspires to admire. If only RZA adopted the stage name “RAZ.” It would be that much easier to lead into what I think this film deserves: All of the RAZzies.