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Walking into the theater to see RZA’s The Man With The Iron Fists the last adjective I expected to have on my mind walking out was “boring,” but that’s really what the film delivers. While the director wears his love of the kung-fu genre on his sleeve, the whole thing suffers from poor structure and character development, a lack of consistent tone, and an inability to commit to its own period.
All set in feudal China in a town called Jungle Village, RZA’s directorial debut has multiple stories working simultaneously, but the main connection between all of them is how haphazardly they are put together. First there’s the blacksmith (RZA), who no longer wants to make weapons and instead wants to abscond with Lady Silk (Jamie Chung); then there’s Zen Yi (Rick Yune), a warrior who learns that his father (Kuan Tai Chen) has been murdered by his own brother, Silver Lion (Byron Mann), and returns home for vengeance; and finally there’s Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), whose entire purpose is kept a secret, though he and Silver Lion are both after the same thing: a shipment of gold that is traveling through the town. Not only are all of these stories interwoven in an arbitrary way that prevents the audience from investing in what’s going on from scene to scene, the relationships and personalities of the characters are never actually explored. In fact, it’s even hard to say that the film has characters, as they’re more accurately described as “people tied to a plot.”
The Man With The Iron Fists doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie it’s supposed to be. More often than not it takes itself seriously as a dramatic kung-fu film, but this is regularly undercut by material you expect from a spoof. It’s hard to take the plight of the blacksmith seriously, as he becomes racked with guilt about the number of lives his weapons have taken, when the central villain sounds like he is doing his own bad English redub. You want to laugh at the ridiculously cheesy dialogue, but it’s weird when it’s mixed in with the serious story of a warrior on a quest to avenge the death of his father. If it’s not purposeful spoof then it’s simply bad storytelling, and in this case I can’t tell the difference.
And if it can’t commit to characters or tone, why should we expect it to commit to its period setting either? While it’s not as though the movie has cars driving around in the background of scenes, RZA never seems to make any effort to show off the time period and none of the actors commit to being in a past world. This would honestly be ignorable if it weren’t for RZA’s voice-over narration throughout the film, which is told in a very modern and is peppered with words like “motherfuckers” that immediately remind the audience that its 2012 and they’re sitting in a theater. It’s the cherry on top that makes the entire 96-minute runtime thoroughly unengaging.
The Man With The Iron Fists so desperately wants to be Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, but the final product isn’t anywhere near the same league. The film does have some interesting choreography and the props department outdid themselves when it came to weapons, but the only reason to focus in on that stuff is because the rest of the movie is so unimpressive.