A well intentioned love letter to the Kung Fu Movies of an earlier era, that sadly ends up being all rather hollow and unforgivably dull…
Occasionally, when working through the various genres and locales that make up Asian Cinema, you come across a movie that you have to question whether it really ‘fits’. This has never been so true in my mind as with The Man With The Iron Fists. Directed and Produced by Americans, mostly populated by American-Asians, and with more money pumped into it that most Asian films can only dream off. Yet, it was filmed in China, and is totally created with respect and love for the films it apes. With this dichotomy in mind, could it succeed?
The Man With The Iron Fists is set in 19th Century China. A large shipment of Gold is about to pass through Jungle Village, and the local leader of the Lion Clan, Gold Lion (Chen Kuan-tai) is tasked with its protection. Sadly, his two lieutenants, Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le) betray him, and plan to take the Gold for themselves. Upon hearing of the death of his father, Zen-yi (Rick Yune) leaves his new bride to avenge his Father. He eventually meets up with a freed Black Slave (RZA), who works as a Blacksmith, making extravagant weapons for all the warring clans. The Blacksmith is smitten by Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) a local Prostitute, and is interested in only buying her freedom and running away together. The village becomes a magnet for parties on both side, including local Brothel owner Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), Englishman Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), Mercenary Brass Body (David Bautista) and the Lion Clan’s ally Poison Dagger (Daniel Wu).
I came to the film with somewhat mixed feelings. I knew that RZA had great love and respect for these type of films, and even though it was his first time behind the camera, I was hopeful he might be able to create something that might not be technically perfect, but be able to express that love. On the other hand, it has been something like 7 years in the making, and there was plenty of talk of a 4 hour film that had been sliced down to a mere 90 minutes. I was also worried about the involvement of Eli Roth and Quentin Tarrentino (although the latter has done little more than allow the use of his name), not because they are bad film-makers per se, but because recently they have been guilty of making expensive and shallow copies of the films they love and are inspired by. I worried about the care that was put into the technical aspects of Death Proof, but eventually simply created a movie that was boring and joyless.
Sadly, it was this fear that came to fruition. The first half of the movie tries hard to mimic the ‘failings’ of the original movies, pumping money into recreating something that was originally due to necessity and money, rather than a particular stylistic approach. These films were pumped out en masse, relying on the availability of actors that might have been making several films at one, and having to create scenes on-the-fly. Here everything feels like an expensively created fake antique, as it looks genuine enough, but simply does not have the energy created out of instant inspiration.
It does not help that our main two heroes are utterly without charm or Charisma – RZA and Yune are the dullest pairing I have seen in a long long time, and contrast badly with the more fun pantomime villainy bought by Byron Mann and Daniel Wu. Frankly, the film is also completely held together by Russell Crowe, who manages to channel the spirit of Oliver Reed at his carousing best as the larger than life Jack Knife. Crowe’s performance simply holds the attention when the rest of the film is an utter snooze fest. Lucy Liu is not too bad either, with her scenes with Crowe at least having some frisson, but she is symptomatic of something else that is wrong with this film. Apart from the all-to-short appearance of Grace Huang, every asian female in the film is a Prostitute. Now I am not casting aspersions on the characters of these girls, but it does feel that the fairer sex is being rather stereotyped here.
The film also has issues with how it is put together. It’s little more than a videogame really – once all our characters are lined up, it just becomes a progression of people turning up and reasonable fights occurring. Then upon completion of the level, another, bigger threat turns up. And whilst there are glimmers of interest in characters like the Gemini Twins and Brass Body, they are little more than cool ideas for fight sequences.
Here’s the fundamental problem though. I am going to compare it with a similar movie – The Forbidden Kingdom. In that film, an American film crew went to China to recreate the stories of that country. Just like this film did. They both had similar levels of care and respect for the source material (slightly different source I will grant you, but similar). But then they actually made use of the locale, not only populating it with local talent (and not just superstar talent), but actually obviously filming it on location, making use of the local scenery. The Man With The Iron Fists may well have been filmed in China, but it may well as have been a Hollywood backlot, or Vancouver. There are smatterings of local Asian acting talent around, but most of the Asian cast are very much American Born and bred. This means that the film feels like a copy, and at the end of the day ends up being rather shallow and hollow.
If it makes a few people check out the inspirations for this move, then I will take that, but the film is not as smart and clever as it thinks it is, and it lasts that all important factor – it has no real heart. And without heart, then love is pretty meaningless.