It was always only a matter of time before RZA, ringleader of the storied Wu-Tang Clan and sometime collaborator with the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, found himself behind the camera. At its best, his directorial debut is exactly the sort of movie you’d expect from a guy whose discography is littered with chop-socky samples and Eastern sensibilities of honor and violence. The Man With the Iron Fists is a direct hit at a target audience, and damned if most of them won’t be on board from the moment a Morricone-flavored mix of Wu-Tang’s “Shame on a Nigga” cues up and bearded Chinese dudes start wailing on each other.
The pastiche would probably work even if RZA hadn’t spent two decades sprinkling kung-fu references into the popular consciousness, but it doesn’t hurt. The form RZA’s obsession takes onscreen is a little surprising, though. On its face, The Man With the Iron Fists is less the sort of raw kung-fu flick that gave the Wu-Tang Clan its name than a Western-tinged take on the lush martial arts mini-epics of the last decade, full of affected period clothing and blossom-wafting mansion brothels. Then RZA’s signature Shaolin drawl kicks in on the voiceover, and it goes full-fledged B-movie. Tarantino must be proud.
The narration isn’t the only silly thing about The Man With the Iron Fists, or even among the silliest. (RZA, playing a blacksmith who gets caught between warring clans, actually turns in the film’s most earnest performance, not that that’s any less hilarious in and of itself.) From the low-budget CGI splatter to Byron Mann channeling Prince as murderous baddie Silver Lion, no one will ever mistake it for a Zhang Yimou movie; RZA wears his trash-cinema cred on his sleeve, and beneath the relative production values (supplied by designer Drew Boughton, costumer Thomas Chong, and cinematographer Chi Ying Chan) roams a director as enthusiastic as he is clearly inexperienced.
From scene to scene this isn’t really a problem, as RZA fares as well or better with dramatic scenes than most cinematic moonlighters. The limitless brawling, though, is of the sort that highlights the differences between an experienced action filmmaker and a simple enthusiast. A few of the fights have enough of an arc to be exhilarating, and the more gimmicky wire fu-inspired stuff—particularly a scene involving a duo dubbed the Gemini Killers (or Killahs, perhaps?)—is well-served by RZA’s breakneck camera-swooping. But as much as he avoids the risk of really botching any fights by keeping practical martial arts low in the mix, the madness and scale of the bigger set pieces still find him grasping for a flow that isn’t there—while we wait, surprisingly enough, for the story to pick back up. RZA may count a number of professional filmmakers as personal friends, but no one’s going to accuse them of hovering over his shoulder during the making of The Man With the Iron Fists.
That would go double for the screenplay, if RZA’s credited co-writer weren’t actually one of those pros. Eli Roth’s underappreciated Hostel movies presented a gruesome new wit in genre film, so we can only assume his role in scripting The Man With the Iron Fists involved cheerleading the gory parts from a comfy chair while RZA hunched over a laptop, cobbling together something that could have been written by a 9-year-old who just saw his first Shaw Brothers movie.
On a surface level, at least, it’s the most amateurish script for a wide-release film in recent memory, foregoing character development for anyone but RZA’s own character in favor of fabulously hacky narration—at one point he actually offers up that he and his lover “could not have known that fate had other plans for us”—and a plot that just barely functions in moving characters around for the purpose of brawling among themselves. RZA being an authority on Asian B-movies and one of the most accomplished brainiacs in hip-hop, we can give the benefit of the doubt that this stiltedness is just another bit of canny pastiche. If that’s true, I’m pleased to compliment RZA and Roth on having written a script that’s utterly convincing in its awfulness.
What’s really worth saying about The Man With the Iron Fists is that all these problems and more hold it back from being genuinely good, but never from being fun, or at the very least novel. It’s fast-paced, ridiculously violent, and chock full of RZA protecting his and others’ necks; if you suspect you’ll like it based on that, you’re probably right.