Movie Review: The Man with the Iron Fists

By November 2, 2012

There’s something so undeniably earnest and enthusiastic about the insane new action flick The Man with the Iron Fists that one’s first reaction is to give the flick some Ritalin. This is every bit the movie that young action fans daydream about when they know nothing about budgets and test-marketing and foreign markets; they just want a martial arts movie that combines the coolest parts of every martial arts film they’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t matter if things like logic, reality, and common sense disagree: the prolific musician known as The RZA felt compelled to bring his version of that movie to the screen and I for one am pretty damn happy that he did.

Film geeks and movie critics know to approach a person’s “passion project” carefully, especially when the person is not exactly an established filmmaker, but there’s something endlessly strange and irrepressibly amusing about RZA’s directorial debut that my skepticism quickly congealed into legitimate admiration. True, the man had help from his co-writer Eli Roth, who may have helped with the directing, but RZA wore a lot of different hats on this film, and it’s safe to say that The Man with the Iron Fists is the film that this particular fan of martial arts movies wanted to make.

The plot is meaningless: there’s a giant coffer filled with gold — and everybody in “Jungle Village” wants it: A) the evil father-murderer known as Silver Lion, B) a mysterious Englishman with an opium habit, C) the ultra-heroic Zen Yi, D) the devious brothel-owner Madam Blossom, E) a massive assassin who can turn his body into brass, E) a low-key blacksmith who plies his wares to every warring clan member who has enough gold, and F) more sidekicks, henchmen, minions, and hidden assassins than one 96-minute film really needs. Suffice to say this is one crazy flick. And nearly all of it works.

The Man with the Iron Fists is more of an affectionate homage than it is a parody of the infamous Shaw Brothers action films of the 1970s. It’s clear that while RZA and Roth are fine with being broad and even goofy from time to time, at no point does Iron Fists mock or deride the movies it is emulating. It’s the respect for the source material than elevates the film from kooky curiosity to a legitimate film; the audience who will most appreciate The Man with the Iron Fists will surely approve of how the movie pokes a little fun at the inherent silliness of most martial arts movies but pulls back before it ever gets too broad. (In other words, this is not a Scary Movie-style spoof; thankfully there’s not one “bad voice dub” joke to be found.)

So the plot is amazingly basic, the characters are all super-italicized caricatures, the tone is a cross between Kung Fu Hustle and Big Trouble in Little China, the music is pretty much aces across the board, and the dialogue is an adorable collection of tough-guy banter and pulpy, old-school silliness … and then there’s Russell Crowe. Wow. It’s rare to see the normally stoic movie star having this much fun in a movie, and it’s actually sort of infectious. Byron Mann (as Silver Lion) and Lucy Liu (as Madam Blossom) are a whole lot of fun, but it’s Russell Crowe’s absolutely unhinged performance that’s the crown jewel of weirdness in this joyously bizarre little action movie.

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Scott Weinberg
Writer. Movie critic. Producer. Semi-actor. Wise-ass. Film advocate. Horror geek. Cat fan. Twitter junkie. Follow me at @scotteweinberg.