The mish-mashing of genres often present a film that is energetic, stylish and entertaining. Asian cinema had achieved such things with “Sukiyaki Western Django”, “The Good the Bad the Weird” and even with “Versus”. American filmmakers have done the same albeit with mixed results with “Bunraku”, “The Warrior’s Way” and now with this Quentin Tarantino-produced film called “The Man with the Iron Fists”. Originally intended to be a cross-over with Tarantino’s upcoming “Django Unchained” with a story and direction by Rza, this film is a standing tribute to Asian martial arts films, westerns and fantasy.
The screenplay co-written by Eli Roth is pretty simple as it tries to intertwine several plots elements that involve a blacksmith named Thaddeus (Rza also stars as the lead), a man called Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), the madam of a brothel called Madam Blossom (Lucy Lui), and the son of a murdered lord called Zen Yi (Rick Yune). The film tells the story of a clan rivalry between the Geminis (led by Andrew Lin and Grace Huang), the Wolf clan, the Lions led by Silver Lion (Bryron Mann) and the people caught in the middle in a small village. The blacksmith forced to create weapons of war because of his love for a prostitute called Lady Silk (Jaime Chung) for the clans that fight and steal the emperor‘s gold.
“The Man with the Iron Fists” had trailers that looked insanely cool, stylish and action packed. In many ways, the film is indeed as advertised. Rza’s film is extremely entertaining to a point and it is easy to like especially when you are an Asian martial arts fan. The film is something that could be seen as a tribute film; as it has bucket loads of homage to classic Chinese Shaw Brothers films, martial arts mysticism, Japanese anime and even what we have come to call as ‘spaghetti’ westerns. Familiar faces such as the legendary Gordon Liu and the beautiful Pam Grier also offer a sense of novelty.
While the film does have loads of action scenes, it does try to present a story despite the simplicities of the devices within each subplot. The core plot feels awfully familiar to the martial arts classic “Dragon Inn” and its remake “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”, while it allows its characters to drive its pacing and plot mechanics. I do have to admit, even when the characters weren’t entirely original, they were allowed to have some room to generate their charms upon the viewer. Jack Knife is your typical character with a kind of cowboy attitude and a lust for beautiful Asian women, Madam Blossom is someone that we’ve all seen in movies who embody the ultimate femme fatale, while Zen Yi is the guy out for vengeance. The glue that puts everything together is the blacksmith played by Rza who also manages to generate some mood with his innder monologue. I do commend that the script does have its ambition, and it tries to have some intricacies to its development even without the action.
The problem was, Rza does pace the film in a somewhat "talkie" manner; and while I have to admit that it was somewhat necessary to develop the characters, Rza does not have the skills as a director to pull it off. The film starts off strongly enough with the delivery of its stylish violence, but as soon as the plot mechanics were laid out, the film loses much of its momentum a little too quickly. Tributes and homage are good, but it can only carry one so far if the direction is not careful in the development with the copious amount of characters.
However, when there is action the film does get going. The effects were a blend of CGI and practical effects. The film also predictably pulls off the arterial spray to make the film feel more like a martial arts film. I also enjoyed the weapons in the film; Zen-Yi’s armor, the Gemini’s holster firearm, Jack’s knife-gun were obvious tributes to anime. The action was decent and utilizes the use of wires to make the actors cool in the execution of the martial arts moves. Cung Le (as Bronze Lion) does provide a welcome sight as with former WWE wrestler David Bautista (as Brass Body), as their action scenes did stand out. But try as the Rza does, he just struggled in the fight scenes. He should have hired Yuen Woo-Ping (as Tarantino wisely did) to help him out with the fight choreography. Chi Yin Chang’s cinematography was decent, and the set designs were stellar; it mimicked the designs that we’ve grown to love in films such as “House of Flying Daggers” and “Shadowless Sword”. Shot in China, the film looked exactly as it should.
I did have some issues with the way it sought to blend some modern and 70’s-inspired tunes (much like the anime hits Afro-Samurai and Samurai Champloo) with the Asian cinema tempo. I was not too fond of such stylish touches back then, and I am not at all impressed with this style. It worked with “Kill Bill”, but somehow, it struggled to add anything really cool in the film. But, the film is incredibly sexy, even without nudity, the sex scenes (while only hinted at) were quite fun to watch. Boy, if you are looking for gorgeous Asian women, this film will not disappoint. They were truly enchanting to look at that you could just watch them stand around and do nothing.
I do have to say, that for a ‘rookie’ director, this full-length feature film knew what it wanted to do. It may be a little rough when it came to editing, but it was fun to watch. Loaded with homage and tributes to martial arts movies, you could tell that Rza and company cared for what they were shooting and had fun doing the film. “The Man with the Iron Fists” is nothing special, nor is it a must-see, but it is worth to be seen even once.
Timid Recommendation to Asian cinema fans, and a RENTAL to Everybody else. [3 Out of 5 Stars]
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