Monday, November 19, 2012

Blogorium Review: The Man with the Iron Fists

 Expectations are a funny thing sometimes, especially if you live in some kind of film geek "bubble." I didn't realize I lived inside of said "bubble," but the generally blase reaction to RZA's long talked about, long-in-the-making kung fu epic The Man with the Iron Fists, it seems clear to me that very few people were excited about the movie. Or at least, as excited as I thought they would be. This may come as a surprise to Blogorium readers, but the Cap'n is fairly well versed in the Wu Tang Clan, and while not as well versed in chop sockey cinema, I do have an appreciation for how seriously the RZA takes the genre. When you surprise a film scholar with your knowledge about the Shaw Brothers, the Shaolin Temple, and Eastern philosophy (as RZA does on the commentary for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), then your long gestating entry into kung fu movies isn't just a lark.

 And The Man with the Iron Fists is more than just a series of winking references to Enter the Dragon, King Boxer, and 5 Deadly Venoms although you are going to see all of those and a lot more even before Gordon Liu shows up*. RZA integrates Buddhist philosophy into a serious back story of how Blacksmith (RZA) escapes a misunderstanding that ruins his "freed slave" status in the U.S. and washes him up in 19th century China, where he learns to embrace his Buddha nature and then the art of Chi and pressure points in fighting. This comes in handy when he was to fight Brass Body (Dave "The Wrong Side of Town" Bautista), but I'd better not explain how because that would be a SPOILER, just like how Blacksmith becomes the title character.


 Maybe it's the Eli Roth factor that caused people to tune out of logically being excited. Look, I get that many people hate Eli Roth and Eli Roth movies even though when I talk to them it seems like they've never seen his movies. Okay, so Cabin Fever is a tonal mess and kind of fails to be funny or scary when it needs to be, but hating the Hostel movies sight unseen is a little silly. Technically, because they center around and organization that captures people and auctions them off to be killed (by torture), Hostel and Hostel Part II get wrapped up in the "torture porn" category with the shitty Saw films. My problem with that snap judgment by people who have only heard the term "torture porn" is that the Hostel films, unlike the Saw movies, don't give you torture sequences you want to cheer during. In fact, they make you squirm and feel a little gross, even the second or third time. I laughed the first time I saw the prosthetic eye dangling in the first Hostel, but the second time I saw it I felt bad for that girl and was kinda queasy.

 Anyway the point I'm getting at is that people don't seem to like Eli Roth not because of what they've seen him do, but what they decided about what they didn't see. And maybe you thought he was loud and obnoxious in Inglourious Basterds (which he's supposed to be) and in Death Proof (okay, no argument here) or you just don't like the other movies he produced or his public persona or something. When I get to my Argo review later on we'll be covering similar territory vis a vis Ben Affleck, but I guess the "Screenplay By The RZA and Eli Roth" is turning a lot of people away for some reason. It's silly, because you're missing out.


 In addition to Blacksmith and Brass Body, there are a bunch of other crazy characters inhabiting Jungle Village, both in and outside of the Pink Blosson brothel. To start with, there are the clans: the Lion Clan, Wolf Clan, Hyena Clan, Jackal Clan, and maybe I just misunderstood Wolf clan but it seemed like there was a Rat clan too. Most of the movie is about the Lion Clan, who are given the task of protecting a shipment of gold. Gold Lion (Chen Kuan-tai), their leader is murdered by Silver Lion (Byron Mann), who takes over with his lieutenant Bronze Lion (Cung Le) and plan to steal the money for themselves.

 Silver Lion, like pretty much every other clan member in Jungle Village, hires the Blacksmith (real name Thaddeus Smith - see what they did there?) to make weapons for them, so when they find out that he might be assisting Gold Lion's son Zen-Yi, the X Blade (Rick Yune) in claiming vengeance with a suit of retractable knives, they don't take it too well. All the Blacksmith wants is to leave Jungle Village with Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), who works at the Pink Blossom, but that's probably not going to work out so well for them. Or anybody else when Silver Lion hires Brass Body to kill Zen-Yi.

 Meanwhile, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe, clearly having a great time) shows up at the Pink Blossom and surrounds himself with women for some good old fashioned debauchery, mostly not involving his gun that also seems to be a rotating blade (or is it the other way around). Also, the gold is being protected by the Gemini Killers (Andrew Lin and Grace Huang), who the Lion Clan decides to take down despite their impressive ability to work together in interlocking fighting styles.

 I feel like I'm not even scratching the surface of the film (which is actually pretty easy to follow) because Lady Blossom (Lucy Liu) is also a major part of the story, for reasons both apparent and also slightly surprising (unless you saw the trailer), and the Lion Clan has another secret ally who fires poisoned darts of mercury (also designed by the Blacksmith) and I'm basically not mentioning Wolf and Hyena Clan who are pretty important until Brass Body shows up.

 Overall I have to say I was pretty entertained by The Man with the Iron Fists, although I have to admit I was underwhelmed by some of the fight scenes. Not all, but some. Whether as a result of budget or because of time, some of them are shot in a haphazard way that undermines the action and choreography, or just don't have the impact they ought to (the end of the Blacksmith / Brass Body fight in particular lacks energy). It's a shame, too, because some of the fight scenes are really entertaining: the Gemini Killers vs the Lion Clan, Brass Body vs Zen-Yi, Zen-Yi vs the Wolf Clan, Jack Knife vs... well, I can't tell you that one, Silver Lion vs Zen-Yi, Lady Blossom and Bronze Lion. It's just that the camera is too close sometimes.

 While I would like to give special props to Russell Crowe for making a guy as sleazy as Jack Knife seem appealing and for clearly embracing the spirit of Ol' Dirty Bastard in order to play this role, since I don't get to talk about Dave Bautista much (read: ever), it is fair to point out that he steals the show as the heavy. I never really feared Silver Lion or Bronze Lion or even Abbott (SPOILER) but Brass Body just enters the film and starts tearing things up. He's unstoppable and he knows he's unstoppable so Brass Body just does whatever he wants to do. When you meet him the first him, he playfully picks up all of the children in the street and carries them around, and you think "hey, maybe this guy isn't so bad" until he tosses them aside with no effort (it's actually funnier looking than I'm making it sound) to talk to Silver Lion. Bautista needs to be in more movies of a non-DTV nature, because he has the same kind of charisma as a Dwayne Johnson, but he seems less genial and more menacing.

 So The Man with the Iron Fists is pretty good, not perfect, but not some hack-y attempt to cash in on fans of kung fu movies. RZA clearly takes this seriously and he did the best he could with a limited budget and relatively novice directing skills and I think he succeeded in a lot of ways. I think that he can and should make more movies and that they're going to get even better as he goes along, but this is far from the "disappointment" that I kept hearing after it came out. So yeah, it isn't perfect, and it's not going to supplant many Shaw Brothers movies in your "what chop sockey flick should we watch tonight" conversation, but I think many geeky types (especially of the Wu Tang Clan variety) will find there's a lot to like about The Man with the Iron Fists. Find a theater that serves beer, or I guess get it on Blu-Ray in a few months, kick back with some cold ones, and enjoy seeing a guy get his head punched off.

 * To be fair, the Enter the Dragon reference is very well done and you don't necessarily see it coming until it happens.

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