I hope RZA will keep making movies. The Wu-Tang Clan rapper-turned-director failed in his debut, The Man With the Iron Fists, but it was admirable in its unsuccessfulness.
If you've ever listened to an album by hip hop supergroup Wu-Tang Clan, it should come as no surprise that RZA started his directorial career by focusing his energies on the martial arts genre. The lyrics of Wu Tang Clan's songs are peppered with references to kung fu films, and they are the type of references that hint at the thin line between extreme fandom and obsession. In that vein, superfan RZA set out to make an honest, straightforward martial arts film -- the kind that Bruce Lee would feel at home in -- and he was precisely half of a success.
The Man With the Iron Fists is pitch perfect in terms of aesthetic, mixing breathtaking stunts, breakneck violence and gore, supernatural elements and a familiar humble, just-protecting-his-home-and-family hero. Where it falls flat is in developing any semblance of a coherent plot to take that aesthetic and deliver something remotely memorable to the audience. The plot is so inane that you can nod off for five or 10 minutes and be no more or less confused when you wake up than you were when you fell asleep; I speak from personal experience in this regard. The lesson here, I suppose, is that if RZA is going to make his debut as a director and as a leading man, as he did here, perhaps he shouldn't also be charged with co-writing the film (Eli Roth is also responsible, in part, for this shambolic screenplay).
RZA plays The Blacksmith, the aforementioned humble man in Jungle Village thrust into the middle of a struggle over government gold that attracts a series of clans and even a reckless and violent English mercenary named Jack Knife, who is played by Russell Crowe. He starts out making weapons for the rival clans and squirreling away enough money for he and his girlfriend, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), to escape Jungle Village and the brothel run by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu) at which Lady Silk works. Staying out of the way of those rival clans when you're the one arming them all eventually becomes an untenable position for The Blacksmith, and down two of his appendages in gruesome fashion (but up two, yes, Iron Fists), he joins forces with Jack Knife and Zen-Yi (Rick Yune), a warrior seeking vengeance for his murdered father, for the film's climactic showdown.
I can't say there aren't moments where all of this isn't wildly entertaining. Seeing The Blacksmith, with his Iron Fists, pounding away at the chest of the Hulk-like Brass Body (David Bautista) does leave an impression. But there's so much that doesn't, unfortunately. When you're struggling to remember key plot points as the theater lights come up that's usually a pretty bad sign, and there's not much between the beginning and end that stuck with me except for the laughable explanation behind how an African-American man ended up forging steel in Imperial China.
I want to see more from RZA, but first and foremost I want to see him focus on working with someone else's martial arts story. Being a kung fu superfan with friends like Quentin Tarantino might give you the qualifications to direct such a story, but it doesn't equip you with the skills to write three comprehensible acts and fashion them into a feature-length film, as The Man With the Iron Fists clearly showed.