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The directing debut of Wu-Tang Clan firebrand RZA is a loving, accurate homage to the legendary Shaw Brothers films that first inspired the chopsocky-mad lad to bring the pain (verbally, if not physically) and get his feisty, fisty flow on. With fight choreography by Corey Yuen (The Expendables), cameos from a panoply of Hong Kong’s finest (chief among them the great Gordon Liu), and a ramshackle plot that Quentin Tarantino might be hard-pressed to explain (Tarantino receives a “presented by” credit, and his frequent collaborator, Eli Roth, is one of the film’s producers and co-wrote the screenplay with RZA), RZA’s blood-drenched ode to his most beloved of all film genres is a beautiful, chaotic, nonsensical train wreck that is, nevertheless, well worth the ride for fans of Seventies-era Run Run and Runme Shaw productions. A word of advice: Have a few drinks beforehand, imagine yourself situated in the skeeviest rat-hole theatre on the Deuce (aka 42nd Street in Manhattan, circa 1977), and just go with it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll come to the conclusion, as I did, that the whole thing is a lark – albeit a heartfelt one. This is the RZA’s world. Dig it.
I know I mentioned a plot somewhere, so I’m pretty sure there was one, but I’ll be damned if I can untangle the dozens of strands seemingly involved therein. But what the hell, I’ll give it a shot: RZA is the Blacksmith, a badass tradesman beholden to the forever-warring clans of 19th century bad-guy backwater, Jungle City. He’s forced by circumstances to fashion ever more lethal murder mechanisms for the Lion Clan, Wolf Clan, Gemini Twins, Zen Yi (Yune, sporting porcupine-inspired, black-leather body armor that looks like the bastard couture offspring of Jean Paul Gaultier and Helmut Newton), and too many others to count. Planning to retire to the country with his beloved prostitute paramour, Lady Silk (Chung), the Blacksmith finds his plans disrupted when a gold fortune passes through Jungle City, attracting – natch – every feverish kung fu freak in the area.
Stout Russell Crowe turns up as the rogue Brit death machine, Jack Knife, and gets all the best lines. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Crowe try to enunciate around a mouthful of anal beads.) Lucy Liu’s Madam Blossom and her army of libidinously lethal sex kittens gives as good as she gets (and vice versa), and copious amounts of CGI gore splatter everything in sight. Why was this not presented in 3-D?
On the downside, RZA’s mumbled narration needs Mandarin subtitles to even be understood in English, performances are spotty at best, and the Blacksmith’s backstory feels like a prep class for Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained. There are enough “What the fuck?!” moments and severely wooden line readings on display to blow even the mind of Big Trouble in Little China’s wily Lo Pan. (That’s a compliment, by the way.) Like I said, let the brilliant, epic silliness of The Man With the Iron Fists engulf you in a tsunami of crimson cheese and you, like I, will have a super-happy-fun-big-smile-crazy-face-monkey-time. As every Shaolin warrior worth his chi knows, that’s really all you’ll ever need in this lifetime.