After a career as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan — who took their name from the 1983 Gordon Liu vehicle Shaolin and Wu Tang — and making music tinged and influenced by old kung fu flicks, actor-turned-director RZA making a Shaw Brothers-inspired action film is a logical next step. And at first, RZA’s Man With the Iron Fists is refreshing, eschewing much of the postmodern rearranging one expects from these homages to long past genre work (Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (2007) and Machete (2010)) for a surprisingly straight-faced approach to chopsocky filmmaking. But it doesn’t take long for that luster to fade as Iron Fists quickly becomes nothing more than an exercise in fandom — and a none too exciting or inspired one, either.
For reasons more than just his standing as executive producer, Quentin Tarantino and his series of Kill Bill films are Iron Fists closest modern touchstones (beyond taking a ton of cues from the movie). But what sets those Kill Bill films apart from RZA’s — amongst many reasons — is that while those flicks are very much genuflecting back to old films, while RZA’s filtering those movies through his own worldview — even if that worldview is built on little more than digested and regurgitated cinema. That’s more than we get from RZA, who’s made little more than a fan film. Another musician-cum-filmmaker, Rob Zombie, has done much the same so far during his career. His debut, House of 1000 Corpses (2003), is a hodge podge of Tobe Hooper and exploitation films, but it’s almost painfully self-indulgent and modernzized. Iron Fists comes off more as a photocopy of the films RZA loves, like a YouTube video made by an adoring fan.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly translate into entertaining results. The story is basic, involving a small Chinese village that’s inundated by a rogue’s gallery of super-powered kung fu archetypes, all after a chest full of gold. The biggest problem is RZA, whose fight scenes appear cleverly choreographed, but he shoots them all as impossibly jumbled messes. He also gets the bulk of the screentime as the village blacksmith, but he lacks any range or onscreen charisma, and mumbles his way through scenes. Besides Byron Mann (Catwoman) as the film’s flamboyant villain, little of the cast comes across well. This includes Russell Crowe, who’s simply shockingly — and distractingly — haggard and out of shape. Even the idea that Iron Fists is supposed to be an entertaining gorefest is torpedoed by cheesy CGI blood and other cartoonish effects. There’s no elegance to Iron Fists and even less that’s clever, adding nothing new to the genre it so lovingly evokes. Rated R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use.
Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher