There’s hardly much more to say about Neanderthal martial arts movie The Man with the Iron Fists (2012) other than it is an affront to the defining contributions made by directors such as Ang Lee and Wilson Yip over the years. This deeply cerebral genre has been completely macerated by director RZA, best known for his hip-hop career with Wu Tang Clan, and ‘presented bys’ gore guru Quentin Tarantino. We have been spoilt in recent years – certainly blessed with a mini Golden Age due to advances in cinematography and choreography – but this tactless portrayal of warriors and warlords will be forgotten in an instant.
The title refers to the eponymous character: a blacksmith (RZA) whose arms are chopped off in a brutal attack. As he’s left bleeding to death on the ground, all hope seems lost, save for a marvellous reprieve as he is rebuilt with a pair of iron limbs. This actually sounds like the basis for a stylish narrative; it fuses the mythic storyline of redemption and revenge which was so weakly used in Mortal Kombat (1995). This is the only intrigue; the rest is a star-studded farce as Russell Crowe turns in an appallingly chauvinistic performance as a feral bounty hunter, Lucy Liu as a crass and embarrassingly comical brothel Madame and a martial arts cast who look like they’ve wandered off the set of Edward Scissorhands (1990).
Scimitars and axes yield blood-splattering results, as one would expect with Tarantino lurking in the shadows, but this is far from the dramatic and watchable edge of Kill Bill (2003). Instead, we are treated to a samurai pantomime, with dialogue in serious need of two or three rewrites, or perhaps completely scrapped altogether. Even pantomimes are more eloquently stitched together than this however; characters have little or no relation to each other and serve only to demonstrate who can slice and dice with unrivalled haste. There are certain lines, mainly ones delivered by Crowe, that will make you laugh out loud; so much so, it’s hard to know whether RZA was drunk when he co-wrote Iron Fists.
In all seriousness, everyone involved in this film should be ashamed. It’s amateurish, wholly unimaginative and completely ignorant of the profound mystical and moralistic philosophies of martial arts conquests. The Man with the Iron Fists gives a bad name to any western directors trying their hand at martial arts film, particularly in a genre which has been traditionally dominated by Eastern auteurs. If we are to engage in cross-cultural filmmaking, for which martial arts would definitely be an absorbing area, it’s unlikely we’ll find it in the work of RZA.