In the pantheon of rappers’ directorial debuts, RZA’s “The Man With The Iron Fists” is, if nothing else, marginally better than 50 Cent’s “Before I Self Destruct.” Those hoping that the hip-hop renaissance man has found a new calling, however, are out of luck. His kung fu pastiche has every tone-deaf trapping of a first-time director rushing headlong into a vanity project without understanding what he’s going for. Which is sort of the point, I guess, but none of it is even that funny. Hiring Eli Roth of “Hostel” infamy to help pen the script is probably what got this thing made, but Roth did little to stop the movie from buckling under rookie mistakes. The novelty is fun enough for some ridiculous fight scenes, but audiences will need either a Zen-master level of patience or a lot of alcohol to get through the in-between parts.
Things start off okay with an intentionally corny opening credits fight set to the Wu-Tang classic “Shame on a N***a,” but the plot quickly becomes too convoluted to be written off as parody. The original cut of this movie was apparently four hours long, and within the first 20 minutes one can feel whole characters and storylines being excised. A vague scenario involving warring clans pins together what’s left, and none of the remaining leads—RZA’s titular blacksmith, Russell Crowe’s British soldier, Rick Yune’s vengeance-seeking clan heir, and Lucy Liu’s brothel madam—have enough screentime or snappy lines to become likeable B-movie heroes. Successful grindhouse homages give us a forceful personality to hang our hats on when the mock self-seriousness gets muddled, and RZA’s vacant, bored cadence is not up to the task.
If you’re wondering why Russell Crowe is in this movie, know that watching his performance was one of the most disconcerting experiences I’ve had in theaters since “Shame.” Old and puffy, he strolls into town and immediately shacks up at Lucy Liu’s brothel where he proceeds to “rescue” a prostitute from an even fatter, uglier client. Interspersed over the next half hour are at least three short scenes of Crowe in bed with Chinese prostitutes in varying states of undress. There’s one scene in which Crowe waves a giant metal buttplug in front of the girls and says, “Let’s play; let’s pretend we’re Catholic,” and I’m pretty sure that was when his legacy as a one-time sex symbol was officially voided. I’m not going to lie and say I’ve never laughed immaturely at casual misogyny, but not like this. Not like this.
That’s not to say there aren’t things to like about “Man With The Iron Fists.” The martial arts scenes make creative use of wire fu and are conceptually absurd enough to forgive their lack of coherence. For a film budgeted at 20 million dollars, the sets are lavish and have a tacky charm when the edges show. References to old Shaw Brothers flicks and other chopsocky classics abound if that’s what you’re into. The last 20 minutes give us the orgy of violence we paid for, and a creepy cameo from Hong Kong film star Daniel Wu makes up for the earlier lack of a good villain.
By now, everyone has figured out that Quentin Tarantino had nothing to do with all those late ’90s/early ’00s Asian imports that slapped his name on the DVD box. His “Presented By” credit here is equally meaningless. It has its pleasures, but “The Man With The Iron Fists” won’t give you a tenth of the glee you’ll get from rewatching “Kill Bill” or dusting off the old Wu-Tang catalog. RZA’s foray into directing is poised to continue with a Genghis Khan biopic in the works, but I hope he ends up sticking to soundtracks.