I’ll admit it, I have not been initiated into the cult of kung fu movies. I have seen a few, Enter the Dragon (1973) certainly, some of Jackie Chan’s early Chinese movies, but I have proved resistant to their spell. I’m sorry to report that I remain resistant after seeing The Man with the Iron Fists (2012). That it makes a loving and committed ode to those earlier films and others like it is impressive, but it’s hard to enjoy the homage if you’re not that awed with what is it’s honoring.
The movie presents an ultra-stylized, ultra-violent Chinese western, a 19th-century tale of warring clans, opium addicts, blacksmiths, madams and their stable of beautiful and deadly girls. In a Chinese village, the clashing factions have torn the place apart. The murderous Hyena Clan has scored a great victory, killing the leader of the just as unsubtly named Lion Clan. The Lions’ Zen Yi (Rick Yune), whose father was the murdered leader, vows revenge. His road will not be easy as the Hyenas seem to possess special powers, employing a soldier who can turn himself into metal and one that can be shattered like glass and reassembled. However, Zen Yi is able to counter with the dangerous Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), the owner of the Pink Blossom brothel, the opium-fueled former member of Her Royal Navy Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) and the expert blacksmith of unusually lethal weapons (RZA), who after being roughed up by the Hyenas, remakes himself as the man with the iron fists. The two sides will come together to punch and kick each other in inventive ways.
I’ve recently seen two movies made by first-time directors who mad their names as rappers. The first was Ice-T’s documentary about hip–hop Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012), and now The Man with the Iron Fists by RZA, formerly of the Wu-Tang Clan. Halfway through Iron Fists, I was struck by the risks RZA was taking by choosing as his first go a technically challenging action film compared to Ice-T’s relatively easy interview-style doc (especially one about a subject he ought to know). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the idea of a ’70s martial arts homage was perfect for a first-timer. Yes, the coordination of the fights would take some skill (a skill RZA seems to have, staging competent and comprehensible battles; in fact, he seems more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it), but what genre cares less about capable storytelling or logical plotting than ’70s martial arts movies? It’s the same reason many independent directors make their debuts with horror movies: all you need is a few pretty girls and lots of corn starch; an intelligible script is not a requirement.
That’s not to say The Man with the Iron Fists is not without its charms. It reminded me of Casa De Mi Madre (2012), which is a comedy spoof of Mexican horse operas, but, like Iron Fists, is totally committed to the genre it’s copying. That commitment makes the movie interesting on a few levels (the credits are of a variety that haven’t been used unironically since the first Reagan administration), and it has an earnestness that cynical modern movies sniff at. Everything is Gothic and weighty; nothing happens casually, and RZA and his director of photography Chi Ying Chan work hard to give us an interesting angle for every shot even if that undermines clear storytelling.
And though not a spoof, it clearly has its tongue in its cheek, which is the right place for it. Its straight-forward enthusiasm is ripe for ridicule anyway, so it’s good that the movie is self-aware enough to be in on the joke. It’s dead serious about its fight-scenes and its over-the-top costumes, giving us resplendent masters with glowing alabaster hair, mustaches and eyebrows that seem to snake on forever, and weapons of such unimaginable pointy-ness that to see them is to feel your skin tense up and to watch them used for their intended purpose is almost too much. Its greatest achievement is in combining its keen resolution with its jokey self-awareness, giving us a line like, “Jack Knife … I thought you were dead,” delivered with complete ardor.
No, The Man with the Iron Fists didn’t make me a convert to the kung fu movies it so obviously loves, but it didn’t insult me or offend me. In fact, one of the nicest things I can say about it (which it might consider a kiss of death) is that it’s almost quaint. The evolution of the Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan movies that inspired Iron Fists has been toward violence beyond the capacity to comprehend it as in 13 Assassins (2011). Though Iron Fists earns its R-rating, it’s hardly an exercise in racking up the body count. But it is an exercise in genre filmmaking and on that score it’s very good; it’s not as adept at picking a worthwhile genre to glorify.