Shaw Bros. Weekend Spotlight
The RZA’s directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists, is not a Shaw Brothers picture. It was released by Universal Studios, although its inclusion in the column feels right for reasons that shall be discussed in the review below, reasons which should also appear as evident for anyone who has seen the film. The RZA is certainly not a name one would immediately associate with potential first-time directors, regardless of genre. However, his association with the classic martial arts films from the 60, 70s and 80s, most notably those which the Shaw Brothers studio churned out like hotcakes, goes back to his childhood, when he would venture to the nearest cinema on the 47th street in New York that would frequently give them some play. It was love at first sight and his admiration and fascination with such old school kung fu flicks only grew as the years passed. In fact, on the Dragon Dynasty DVD and Bluray of Liu Chia-Liang’s 36th Chamber of the Shaolin, RZA is featured on the audio commentary alongside respected film critic Andy Klein. When the opportunity rang to make a film of his own, there was little doubt which cinema genre he would exercise his debutant directorial skills in.
The Man with the Iron Fists is as Close as it Gets to Modern-Day Shaw
Jungle City is a dangerous place to be at the moment. Following the murder of the leader of the Lion’s clan, Golden Lion (Kuan tai Chen from Five Deadly Venoms!) at the hands of his two lieutenants, Silver and Bronze (Byron Mann and Cung Lee respectively), an army of disparate forces have converged in the town. For one, there is Golden Lion’s son, Zen Yi (Rick Yune) who has vowed to avenge the death of his father. There is also the Gemini Killers, who are transporting gold bullion though Jungle Village. The Lions, greedy buggers that they are, seek to steal the gold from the Gemini, but not before fending off another group of rivals, the Wolf clan. Then there is the sudden arrival of a mysterious and very lethal Englishman, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), who claims to be on vacation while resting at the Pink Blossom brothel, headed by Lady Blossom (Lucy Liu), although his true motives may lie elsewhere…Last but not least is the odd man of the village, a black man (RZA) who has earned an enviable reputation as the region’s finest forger of weapons. His taste for blood is practically non-existent, as his earnings are but a stepping stone for him and his love, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a girl from the Pink Blosson, to leave Jungle Village once and for all to live happily ever after. Can they, however, what with all the danger lurking about?
There are two ways to evaluate The Man with the Iron Fists. One is for the people whose familiarity with kung fu films of yesteryear is hazy at best, if completely null. Is the story good, is the acting good, and so on and so forth. The type of review suited for the uninitiated, if you will. Then there is the type of review and discussion for those who love such films, who have seen plenty of them and who are curious to know what RZA, the kung fu maniac, brought to the table. This being the Shaw Brothers columns, the review shall definitely skew towards the second of the two methods.
First, the positives, of which, this reviewer is pleased to report, there is a substantial amount. RZA, in his first-ever effort to put together a major feature-length film, has weaved a wonderfully decorated and tonally accurate love letter to the old Shaw films. The impact is immediately felt from the opening credits sequence. For one, the credits are splashed across the screen in both English and Chinese characters and, for the real finicky fans, in yellow! Secondly, said credits are interspersed with an elaborate fight sequence at an inn which occasionally freeze frames for the credits to appear. It is a thing of beauty and should reassure the die-hard fans of the genre that they will be in good hands. RZA has their backs. Many of the aesthetic choices fit right in with the legions of movies that have earned cult status to this day, from the set designs of the inns and the Pink Blossom brothel, the names of people and places, even the costume designs. All in all, from a visual standpoint, The Man with the Iron Fists does many, many things right.
The script itself feels like it could have been made into a film had it been written 40 years go as well. This is one of the trickier aspects to master because so many of the stories which drive the classic Shaw films are really quite ludicrous, platforms for a lot of fun and crazy things to transpire. Of course, there are examples when the stories had higher, more artistic goals to aim for (36th Chamber, Heroes of the East, Golden Swallow), yet frequently the scripts were excuses to have supremely entertaining, charismatic characters go head to head in no holds barred brawls. Here again, RZA delivers. There is just barely enough of a thread to explain why each party engages in the behaviours that they do without ever over-elaborating on anything at all. Someone is thirsty for vengeance after the death of his father? Good enough. A blacksmith is forced into making weapons to live well with his girlfriend but because of his profession finds himself in a heap of trouble when nasty clans ask him one favour too many? That sounds about par for the course. Arguing that the story is ‘convoluted’ or ‘too silly’ is a pointless argument. Tons of these movies had convoluted and silly stories.
Additionally, the cast is, for the most part, playing their parts with some exceptional vim and verve. Byron Mann as Silver Lion, the newly self-appointed megalomaniacal leader of his clan, is bringing as much energy and evil charisma as humanly possible to the role. He loves power and wishes to squash anyone who dares stand in his way, simply put. He has many funny lines either just before or after killing or torturing hapless victims that should put a huge grin on audiences. Rick Yune is appropriately determined and hardnosed as the son who must secure his family’s honour, Lucy Liu is obviously having plenty of fun as the manager of the sexiest brothel this side of mainland China, and Russell Crowe, a surprise and curious casting choice, is quite amusing as Jack Knife, a very British personality who can go mad at the snap of a finger. Just don’t make him angry and he won’t carve you up with his pistol knives. Yes, pistol knives. There are a few heartwarming cameos that appear, one that will get Shaw Brothers fans jumping out of their seats, another which, surprisingly, will excite blacksploitation fans and yet another which is actually difficult to find but will speak to horror movie fans. None of their identities shall be revealed so as to not spoil some of the fun, but suffice to say that each is pretty cool.
Unfortunately, the one performer who fails to hit a home run is RZA. Granted, this is his first film (with little to no real film background) and filling in the roles of co-screenwriter and sole director arguably took a lot of effort, so perhaps it affected his acting. That being said, he is terribly dull on-screen, posing with the same dopey face almost throughout the entire film, save for a few scenes when he is either angry or frightened. Curiously enough, his character is very much an observer during the first half of the picture as opposed to an active participant in the story. It is only once the Lions decide they no longer require his services and punish him that the audience even begins to learn who he is and where he comes from.
Of course, there are plenty of battles in The Man with the Iron Fists. In fact, fighting is abundant in the film. Understandably this is a make or break matter for the success of the film. This aspect deserves attention on two fronts. The first is the conceptualization of the battles, their originality, and freshness, or lack thereof. In that respect, it should be said that RZA and his team give viewers plenty to admire and get excited about. There is not only plenty of martial arts gymnastics and wirework but also a pleasing amount of gadgets, adding a flavour of dangers to a great number of the fights. Hidden knives, shooting knives, poison darts, bladed fans and, in a pretty cool twist, a man, Brass Body (David Bautista), whose skin is impervious to attack. The second criterion is the execution on screen, which includes cinematography and editing, two things of the utmost importance when it comes to action. Sadly, these elements are more hit and miss. Some scenes are fantastic, such as the battle between the Lions and the Gemini Killers at an inn midway through the film. The climax, in which the blacksmith, now equipped with his titular iron fists and plenty of chi, X-Blade, and Jack Knife and Pink Blossom for head to head against the Lions clan, is quite well realized, inventive and exciting. Others are far too muddled and choppily cut through the editing process. It is all the sadder given that so much of the film is beautifully in line with the style of the martial arts films of old, that to see the frustratingly disjointed 21st-century style action get in the way (occasionally, mind you) comes as a bitter pill to swallow.
The Man with the Iron Fists is both its own original entry into the kung fu genre while paying its dues to the films which inspired it. RZA clearly has a deep fondness for the Shaw Brothers catalogue and it shows. He himself is not a very good actor and some of his action scenes desperately lack the assured hand of a master, yet let that not discourage fans of these films from seeking it out. All things considered, they should be relatively pleased with the results.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly column about the Shaw Bros. film studio.