The Man with the Iron Fists is goofy and derivative in all the right ways. It bears the tongue-in-cheek approach one would expect from a Quentin Tarantino joint, deployed for less intellectually obtuse reasons, but no less gleeful in its affection. Writer-director-star RZA loves him some kung-fu, and he wants to share. You can embrace what he offers or not, but you can’t deny the tongue-in-cheek passion he unleashes.
Like Tarantino, RZA delights in the genre’s cheesier depths… even to the point of adding typos to the authentic 70s style credits. His patchwork story is equally ludicrous, the better to skip over all that silly talking stuff and get right to the throwdowns. Even when the film doesn’t work, such as an ill-conceived slave narrative to explain the presence of a black man in 19th Century China, its sheer ridiculousness can’t help but put a smile on the right sort of face. We don’t need to know why the characters find themselves there. The only important thing is what they want and who they’re prepared to pound senseless to get it.
And of course, they all flash gimmicky wuxia powers so as to properly proclaim the superiority of their kung-fu. Their ranks include a man who can turn his skin to brass (David Bautista), a man whose armor can fire metal spikes (Rick Yune) and the titular figure who uses his Chi to operate a pair of metal hands. Then there’s folks with more direct means of persuasion, like the round-eyed stranger (Russell Crowe) who packs a vicious pistol-Bowie (or is it Bowie-pistol?) and the local madam (Lucy Liu) and her cadre of poison-dealing ninja prostitutes.
The hero (RZA) is a blacksmith who forges many of these weapons in the remote mountain village where he lives. Things go pear shaped when the leader of a local clan is murdered by his underlings, who then plan to rob a shipment of gold when it passes through the village. Various tough-guys-with-hearts-of-gold show up to stop them, pulling the initially reluctant smith into the mayhem as they do.
The story seethes with contrivances of every sort, requiring periodic bouts of exposition to keep clear. That ultimately detracts from the rich parade of wirework fights that the audience presumably paid to see. Luckily, even the weighty unveiling of the whys and wherefores maintains the film’s throwback atmosphere, and the cheerfully ridiculous choreography should keep the genre’s most fastidious fans more than happy. The Man with the Iron Fists gets positively slap-happy when the blows start flying, but RZA ensures that he plays the fights rather than the fights playing him. The blocking shows some spark and while the editing becomes a little fitful at times, we never lose sight of what’s going on. Whenever the film threatens to go off the rails, RZA ratchets it back just enough to keep his hand on the wheel. His cast is game (Crowe has rarely enjoyed gnawing on the scenery as much as he does here), and his team knows how to shoot the action to the best effect.
Of course, it’s easy to spot Tarantino’s fingerprints all over this. It lacks his elegance and assurance of tone, as well as the post-modern acrobatics that make his work more than just genre riffs. But RZA – a first-time filmmaker – has no desire to overextend himself or push the film past its capabilities. That leaves it as a wonderful bit of chop-sock-y nonsense: upbeat, entertaining and brazenly unapologetic about its own preposterousness. As cinematic junk food, you can’t ask for more; RZA doesn’t ask us to and The Man with the Iron Fists aptly rewards his refreshing lack of pretension.