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November 4, 2012

Written, directed by, and starring RZA (pronounced “Rizza”), THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is a throwback to the kind of grindhouse kung fu cinema introduced to the “mainstream” by KILL BILL. Tarantino and RZA met on that film’s production (RZA provided music for Volume 1), and presumably their mutual affection for the genre led to Tarantino throwing his weight behind what I can only guess is a long-time dream project for RZA, a film like the ones he loved growing up, starring himself as the hero.

I’ve done the fan film thing. I totally get it. I wouldn’t begrudge RZA his Mary Sue adventure at all if the fruit of his passion were, like KILL BILL, also a good movie. But Quentin is a kind of movie savant, who can watch movies and immediately turn around and do it without any prior training. RZA, unfortunately, is not Tarantino, and doesn’t do especially well with any of the many hats he wore on this movie (aside from the music he composed).

As a director, he doesn’t appear to have given the actors much to work with, with tone and performances wildly uneven through the film; visually he seems to have been under the impression that shooting well meant shooting more. As an actor, he’s dull and bland, lacking a proper director’s guidance, as well as lacking the screen presence to pull off the stoic hero. He doesn’t appear to have done much or any training to prepare for the role — his physique soft and undefined, his body language and posture slouched and unconvincing. When he puts on the eponymous fists and smashes them together, that moment in this kind of movie is supposed to feel like a powerful wild animal has just escaped its cage. Here it feels like a twelve year old wearing foam Hulk fists for Halloween.

The fists themselves don’t show up until very nearly the end of the movie, which brings me to RZA as writer. RZA shares screenplay credit with Eli Roth but has a story credit all to himself, so I’m going to assume the structural issues are part and parcel of RZA’s contribution. This 95 minute movie (which feels at least twice as long) spends easily the first half just introducing characters. RZA’s blacksmith protagonist — the archetypical Man Who Doesn’t Want To Fight Until He’s Pushed Too Far — isn’t Pushed Too Far until the last 20 minutes, doesn’t actually enter the fray with the iron fists until the final 5.

No no no. This is — or ought to be — a kung fu superhero movie. Can you imagine a Spider-Man origin film where Peter Parker didn’t get bitten by the spider until well into act 3? The event which pushes him to don iron fists ought to be the inciting incident, the rest of the story playing out as the blacksmith seeks to defend and/or avenge the people of his village.

But RZA didn’t want to just make a martial arts throwback film — he wanted to make all the martial arts throwback films. The film is so distracted by its need to pay homage to other films it forgets all about the putative story of the man with the iron fists until nearly the very end.

To be fair, when it comes to a movie like this, I don’t plunk down my cash for the story, nor the acting. I plunk it down for the fight scenes. A good martial arts movie is much like a good musical, but instead of songs, you have fight scenes. Like songs in a musical, the fight scenes should move the story forward and tell you something about the characters.

A schlocky martial arts film, on the other hand, is more like a porno. The story is a flimsy excuse to drive the action, the longer the better, and while some camera angles are better than others it doesn’t really matter as long as you can see the money shots.

Porno filmmakers understand what their audience wants to see, but for some reason most (American) filmmakers doing martial arts movies do not. A porno presenting its fucking the way THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS presents its fighting simply would not be allowed. The choreography (by Corey Yuen) is solid when you can see it, but the camera is almost always on a 50mm lens or tighter, rarely wider than a medium shot, and it’s an unusual shot that allows more than one move to occur before cutting to another. It feels like RZA thought he had something to prove about his ability to make a “cool” movie, and in so doing just got completely in his own way.

It’s too bad, because there’s definitely a good (“for what it is”) version of this story, and a great fight-porn flick buried in the concept. But this isn’t it. Not even close. If you’re not a fan of the genre, this isn’t going to convert you. If you are, save yourself the disappointment.

One Comment
  1. Kevin permalink

    Regarding the running time…RZA and Roth spent two years talking through every aspect of the movie all the way down to what each weapon would be. The first cut was 4 hours long and RZA wanted to split it into two movies but Roth disagreed so it baffles me that they went from nitpicking every detail down to cutting 2 and a half hours out of the film! And even then IT STILL FELT TOO LONG!

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