Friday, November 2nd marks the directorial debut of hip-hop producer and Wu-Tang Clan frontman The RZA with his long-gestating The Man with the Iron Fists. When his group debuted with their now classic album in 1993, they filled it not only with their own quick, harsh lyrics, but also with audio culled from various kung-fu films, including Ten Tigers from Kwangtung and Five Deadly Weapons. The name of that album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), is also said to have been directly inspired by Shaolin and Wu Tang as well as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, both of which starred Chia Hui Liu, with the latter being widely considered one of the genre’s best. Naturally, it would seem, when RZA decided he wanted to make a film, it would be about kung-fu.
1999 saw the emergence of RZA as not only a hip-hop artist and producer, but also as a composer and actor. Perhaps very fittingly, it was on Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, which starred Forest Whittaker in the title role, an assassin in contemporary New Jersey who works for the mob and lives by the teachings of Yamamoto Tsunetomo as put forth in his Hagakure: Book of the Samurai. In 2003, two-Wu-Tang albums later, he composed the score to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, which in retrospect, seems an almost-too-neat step in his career, since the film and it’s sequel blended several influences from both Chinese kung-fu films, as well as Japan’s samurai ones… Perhaps most important however, was that it gave RZA a great chance to learn first-hand the process of making a film. RZA ended up spending close to 30 days on the set of Kill Bill taking notes and seeing what it took to be a director.
In 2005, a year after the release of Kill Bill, RZA met horror maestro Eli Roth. The two had been in Iceland hanging out with Tarantino, a mutual friend, and decided to fly back to LA together. Here’s Roth:
“We flew back, ended up snowed in in Boston, staying at my parents’ house in Newton. Turned out that my dad and RZA grew up in Brooklyn and went to the same Brownsville junior high school and swam in the same public pool. He hooked me on his dream of directing and reinventing the Kung Fu movie genre. It reminded me of my love of horror.”
After nearly two years of checkered correspondence and nothing much by way of progress on his movie, Roth then contacted RZA in 2007 and said, “We should really get serious about making this movie. I really want to do it. But we have to really work out the story and the script.” So they did, and taking inspiration from Star Wars, where George Lucas created a whole world, with geography, character, race, and politics all having been firmly established in his mind even prior to the film’s completed script, so too, did Roth and RZA, “Think[ing] through everything. The Blacksmith’s shop, weapons, costumes, where the tribes lived. And that was part of the fun, not just thinking about the scares and the kill scenes but constructing this world so that, even if you took the fights out, you’d still have a fun movie.” It took them two years, but after working together between various tours and film shoots, they had a finished script…
For the pitch to Universal Pictures, RZA shared a short film he made with $500,000 of his own money called Wu-Tang vs. The Golden Phoenix. The film, not yet officially available in full to the public, helped to sell to the executives on the idea of a rap star helming a feature film. They gave him 20 million dollars and he flew to China to start the eventual 14 weeks of pre-production. The production itself took another 10 weeks and after the initial editing process, yielded a four-hour cut. Due to the studio’s, as well as Roth’s, concerns over the length it was eventually cut to the 93 minutes it will be released as such.
The plot is a seemingly simple enough one, and concerns the story of a blacksmith (RZA) in a small village in 19th century China who must forge special weapons to help defend his adopted home of Jungle Village from an oncoming horde of assassins and warriors intent on seizing a rumored boon of gold.
Of all the many things one might justifiably be excited about regarding this film, the most for this writer is the idea of the RZA directing a film, obviously, but in a very close second to that, it would have to be the cast. The immediate two, other than RZA himself, would have to be Russell Crowe and Lucy Lui. Crowe plays a character called Jack Knife who, in addition to being an opium addict, is also a lethal fighter in his own right and was partially inspired by RZA’s late cousin Ol’ Dirty Bastard, as well as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Lui plays Madam Blossom, the owner of a local brothel, who can, in a town full of lurking killers, hold her own and is regarded as “the queen of the town, in some ways”, according to Lui herself. Rounding out the ensemble, which is said to include roughly 60 characters, is UFC fighter Cung Le, former James Bond heavy and martial artist Rick Yune, former WWE champion Dave Batista, blaxpoitation legend Pam Grier, relative unknown, and a surprise scene stealer (according to Tarantino), Byron Mann, and perhaps not so surprisingly, RZA’s favorite martial arts star, the aforementioned Chia Hui Liu, credited under his more familiar moniker of Gordon Liu.
The film was shot by Chi Ying Chan, perhaps most easily recognized for his recent work on the criminally overlooked and underseen Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, while the fighting scenes were coordinated and choreographed by Corey Yuen, best known to the world as the action director on the Jason Statham starring Transporter 3 and John Woo’s recent return to glory, the incredible Red Cliff.
The soundtrack will include a score written by frequent RZA and Spike Lee collaborator Howard Drossin, and original pieces produced by RZA. Originally apprehensive of contributing to the soundtrack after having written, directed, and starring in the film, RZA was content to have somebody else produce the music, but at the behest of Tarantino, who claimed people would (naturally) expect it of him to produce the soundtrack, he obliged. Comparable in terms of the talent in his cast, yet surpassing it in terms of recognizable names, the film’s soundtrack includes original entries from The Black Keys, My Chemical Romance, Kaye West, Wiz Khalifa, John Frusciante, and Wu-Tang Clan itself.
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