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The Man With The Iron Fists - Movie review

It’s not like the RZA’s been keeping his love of martial arts movies a secret or anything. He was the driving force behind The Wu-Tang Clan’s mix of kung fu imagery and hip hop, his work in movie soundtracks (including the music for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films) has been heavily influenced by 70s movie scores, and with all the inevitability of a Jackie Chan pratfall, he’s finally gotten around to making a martial arts film of his own in The Man With The Iron Fists. With all that love and knowledge behind it, it couldn’t possibly fail… right?

It’s mid 19th century China and Jungle village – so named because it’s constantly being fought over by various animal-themed gangs and also it’s just a plain old jungle out there – is more dangerous than ever. After accepting a job to guard a large shipment of gold, the leader of the Lion clan was murdered by his two underlings, who plan to steal the gold when it passes through town. While the murdered clan leader’s son, Zen-Yi (Rick Zune), races back to town wearing his suit of knives-sprouting armour, the Lion clan attack the rival Hyena clan while cozying up to the madam of the local brothel, Madam Blossom (Lucy Lui).

Meanwhile, Boozy British mercenary Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) is in town (and Blossom’s brothel) for reasons of his own, while another thug for hire who can turn his body into brass (David Bautista) is causing even more trouble. In the middle of all this is Thaddeus (RZA), a blacksmith who makes his money supplying all sides with weapons, and uses that money to help buy his girlfriend – who works at Blossom’s brothel – her freedom.

In most kung fu movies this would be the point in the review where the line “and then they spend the rest of the movie beating each other up” would appear. And for a while here it does all feel like RZA is just putting all the pieces in place before getting down to some seriously extended and over the top ass-kicking action. Thaddeus’ neutrality is increasingly under pressure, the new Lion clan boss (Byron Mann) hires Brass Body to take care of Zen-Yi when he finally gets into town, everybody else is seemingly running schemes of their own, and then something big happens – it’s hardly a twist, but it is a spoiler – that suddenly makes it clear that all the plotting and scheming isn’t something to race through to get to the fights: it’s what this movie is all about.

It’s easy to see how this film could have worked, because for a lot of the time it almost does. Crowe gives an amazingly hammy yet totally suitable performance as a rambunctious stiff-upper-lip chap with enormous appetites, Lui is better than she’s been for ages as an evil madam who feels really good about being really bad, and Mann is suitably vicious as the main villain. Some of the smaller roles are enjoyably distinctive too: twin fighters the Geminis even manage to live up to their extended build-up when they arrive as guardians of the gold shipment. And while RZA isn’t exactly a scene-stealing performer, his character is written to suit his low key style and as the quiet figure in the centre of a lot of overacting he works pretty well.

Trouble is, nobody watches kung fu movies for the plot. In fact, these days having a plot can be a downright disadvantage. When it comes to kung fu, and action movies in general, audiences have come to expect less chat and more face-punching sound effects that rhyme with chat (splat?). At first this certainly looks like it’s going to be a crazy all-action beat-down carnival; it’s not exactly historically accurate, nor is it populated with realistic characters – what else could this have to offer but crazy fighting? But by keeping it firmly old school and sticking close to a story structure made popular back when people would sit still for twenty five minutes of build up to get to a fight, this shows plenty of respect for the genre but not enough respect for the people who’ve come looking for a good time.

There are still fights to be had here – some of them pretty impressive ones – and the bad guys are bad enough that there’s satisfaction to be had from seeing them being taken down hard. But for a movie that runs 95-odd minutes and features this much kung fu as this one does, it really shouldn’t feel as long as this one does. The RZA’s love of the genre seems to have blinded him to what the average viewer wants out of it: crazy over-the-top characters are fine in small doses, but unless fists start flying minds start wandering.

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