The Man With The Iron Fists Review
by Bret Dorman
Jackie Chan’s First Strike. Jackie Chan. Jet Li. The Transporter. Corey Yuen. Yuen Woo Ping. The Matrix. Wire Fu. Quentin Tarantino. 5 Deadly Venoms. Master of the Flying Guillotine. The 36th Chamber of Shoalin. The RZA. That’s my round about way of saying Jackie Chan’s First Strike was probably the first movie that got me into martial arts movies, then how I became more and more familiar and in depth into the genre, even to the point of listening to The RZA do a commentary track on The 36th Chamber of Shoalin DVD. So yeah, I was pretty excited to hear he was writing and directing a martial arts movie and pretty confident it would be good. I’ll be very picky and critical, but overall I’m pretty impressed.
The Story: Oh boy. Lot’s of characters. The Blacksmith (RZA) makes weapons and likes Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) who is a prostitute under the care or Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu) who runs the best ‘Hotel’ in town and takes care of Mr. Knife (Russell Crowe) who mysteriously shows up after Silver Lion and Bronze Lion (Byron Mann and Cung Le) kill Gold Lion (Kuan Tai Chen) whose favorite son was Zen Yi aka The X-Blade (Rick Yune) who has to fight hired assassin Brass Body (David Bautista) who was hired along with Poison Dagger (Daniel Wu) to kill a bunch of people while The Gemini Twins (Andrew Lin and Grace Huang) protect some gold. Phwew. Also, Gordon Liu is an Abbott (but he doesn’t fight).
I’m a huge advocate for quirky characters and fleshed out back stories that may or may not appear on screen. I loved Smokin’ Aces for just that reason (among others, but yes, it was different than what most people were expecting, including myself). Every hit man and woman in that movie had a nice, distinct, unique character trait. Co-writers The RZA and Eli Roth totally get this. In fact, they’ve stated it in interviews, although citing Star Wars as an influence, not Smokin’ Aces. Instead of just having “Boring Assassin” or “Generic Gang Member” they have Brass Body and Silver Lion. Instead of having “Anonymously Mysterious Guy” and “Main Character” they have Jack Knife and Blacksmith. Each character has a gimmick that gives their fight scene(s) some extra flair and makes it stand out. I like movies that could easily have a 2D fighting game accompany it. I’d love to just see each character fight the other and how their style would match up. Also, I say 2D fighter because I’m not a fan of (or good at) 3D fighters. Sorry Tekken Fans, but Guilty Gear is more my style.
I also like movies that have a sound internal logic that is well thought out. I don’t need to see everything. I can understand just through basics that Brass Body is able to turn his body into brass. I don’t NEED to see how or why. Also, through dialogue, I’m able to map out which characters are “better” than the others by how they talk about each other, to each other, or react to seeing one another. These level of fight skills help tremendously in creating a short hand for upping the tension in fight scenes. We hear two characters are total badasses, then when they are killed we know that person must be really good. Reputations and quick one liners go a long way to building up the cool factor when two characters finally start fighting. RZA and Roth throw these little touches around all throughout, although very meticulously planned.
When it comes to the story, everything is pretty on par with the normal martial arts stuff. There’s gold. People want it. Personal stuff sort of gets in the way. Some people fight for greed, others power, and others revenge. IMDB says the first cut was originally 4 hours long. The final product is a tight 96 minutes. And yet (seemingly) no plot is lost. I imagine most of that cut material is character stuff, which I would love to see (like Brass Body’s background). When you look at most Eli Roth or Quentin Tarantino stuff, a lot of it is character heavy, leaving the plots fairly simple. The dialogue plays like a self-aware fan injecting his one liners into a normal martial arts movie, but it never gets too meta.
And then there’s the acting, which is inconsistent across the board. I’m sure some will find it distracting, but I found it pretty charming. Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu act circles around most. Some like Rick Yune seem to just be in a regular chopsocky flick with more jaded line readings and the Lion Clan, mostly Byron Mann and Cung Le, really dial up the over the top fun. Big surprise for me was David Bautista, (former?) WWE wrestler turned (current?) MMA fighter who also dabbles in acting. His role as an ex-cop turned bouncer for a mob boss in House of the Rising Sun was okay at best. But here he excels as Brass Body, an assassin who walks around laying the smackdown on anyone he’s paid to, crushing them with his metallic strength. His armored body gives him a cockiness that definitely comes across strong. He looks tough, pissed, and not to be messed with. Bautista has that natural showmanship that really translates well and I wouldn’t mind seeing him in more movies like this.
Okay, now let’s get to the action. What I am about to say will sound really negative, but let me state first up top (I’ll restate last down below) that this movie is slightly above average. It is not BAD. I was just expecting more.
I guess I’ll start with what is basically a eulogy to squibbs and practical blood effects. Dredd, which came out earlier this month and I loved, also featured CGI heavy blood. Most action movies do nowadays. I don’t mind a little extra CGI blood added in to enhance, but when the primary source of blood is digital, it really lessens the impact. I say this as a fan of CGI. There are proper uses and improper uses as well as personal preferences. This is a personal preference, but its one I am very adamant about. Watch Freddy Vs Jason and tell me the blood work in that movie is not awesome. That movie excels at primarily using practical effects, especially in its brutal final beatdown in which chunks of meat are flying off the Slasher Titans as they hack at each other on the dock.
In Kill Bill vol. 1 we see The Bride take on the Crazy 88 and you can practically feel the stickiness and messiness of the scene. In The Man With The Iron Fists, most the blood is CGI. Now there’s one scene where X-Blade takes on some people and the blood makes a nice flowing pattern in the air, which I get. It looks cool in that one moment, but for the most part the blood is all post production. I really wish it were practical. I hate to be picky, but when it comes to squibb and gore, I can’t help it. Giant robots, flying cars, background landscapes, UFO’s, mega monsters, or talking animals I can let it slide. But not blood.
Then there’s the issue of choreography. For the most part the film seems well choreographed, which gives it that slightly above average vibe. But the movie is still shot like a conventional Hollywood action flick. Note, I said action flick and not martial arts movie. The biggest difference being in HOW fight scenes are shot. Martial arts movies have action (duh) but an action movie does not have to have martial arts. There’s many different kinds of action. But martial arts in some form is probably the most popular. One on one, one on many, bare handed, or with weapons, characters trading blows is exciting to see. And many martial arts movies feature people who know how to fight performing complex and cool fight scenes highlighted by a nice, steady camera pulled back to see the action and fewer edits. Most Hollywood action movies attempting martial arts have actors who don’t know how to fight masked by close ups, shaky camera movements, and quick edits. This is not the first movie I’ve pointed this out on and I’m not the only one to do so. But I bring it up in detail here to say I’m disappointed The Man With The Iron Fists features the latter kind of action.
Since RZA is such a huge fan I was hoping for something on par with The Matrix, Kill Bill, or old school flicks like Invincible Armour, Spiritual Kung Fu, or Shoalin Temple. Instead we got something like a Bourne movie, The Expendables, or a Nolan Batman film. Now granted I wasn’t expecting anything near The Raid: Redemption, but it would have been nice to see more attempts at the slower paced, rhythmic, more action beats per shot style than the normal text book approach at getting action coverage and putting it together in the editing room. As a fan, that’s what I really WANTED.
I don’t want to make excuses, but I’m sure RZA had a tight budget, with limited time to get this done. Especially with stars like Oscar Winner (!) Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and Dave Bautista (not that everyone else isn’t busy). I read that RZA opted for some CGI stuff because his production was running a tad late and he was pushing his crew hard and people started getting hurt. So I get why they had to speed things up. The movie is also extremely well put together and realized for a first time director who also co-wrote, starred, and produced the soundtrack for this movie. Combine that with the fact that it takes about an hour or so to choreograph every minute of a fight RZA and crew still pull off some good stuff (that’s just choreograph, not counting rehearsal time, or so I’ve heard). And every fight is unique enough to give it that extra spice and not just “Oh, some person fighting some person.” Characters pop up from the ground, drop from the ceilings, have unique weapons, and are pretty ruthless in general.
So again I want to say the action isn’t BAD, I was just hoping for the classic Kung Fu style instead of the frenetic Hollywood style. If there’s a sequel (and I really hope there is) I’ll keep my fingers crossed that RZA has more time, money, and resources to pull off an homage that has some really outstanding and memorable fights. I’m only tougher on this movie because I care.
In Conclusion, I think a lot of movies could learn from RZA’s insane amount of passion and dedication he put into The Man With The Iron Fists. There’s so much going for it, that I hate to be a picky critic, but I have to at least say the action could use a bit sprucing up. But since it has the heart as well as the vision and legit badassery, I’m more than pleased to give it a more than good grade.
Final Grade: B+
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