Today’s epic review of RZA’s Man with the Iron Fists is by guest reviewer S. Weaver. Enjoy!
I’m a big RZA fan, and a huge fan of Wu-Tang in general, and I’ve got the CDs and t-shirts to prove it. I’ve even read both of RZA’s books. Yes, he’s written two books. And I loved them both, even if they’re both kind of the same book.
So I couldn’t really tell you why I waited so long to see RZA’s directorial debut, The Man With the Iron Fists. (Spoiler Alert, “The Man” is RZA… in fact, this is as good a time as any to announce that this writing will contain mild vague spoilers, but it’s not like this is The Sixth Sense or something, so you really shouldn’t whine about it.) I do know what finally caused me to break down and see it, though: it was $5.00 at Target. That price can pretty much get me to see anything. Please don’t put that to the test.
If you’re, like, an 11 year old girl or something and don’t know who the Wu-Tang Clan is, they’re a group of rappers who constantly reference old kung fu movies and occasionally show up in stoner comedy movies where they smoke the ashes of their dead friends. TMWTIF is all about coming full circle: The leader of the rap group known for being influenced by cheesy martial arts movies finally makes his own homage to cheesy martial arts movies. Seems like a recipe for awesome, right?3
Except, it’s kinda not. The movie is supposed to be over-the-top and cheesy, in the vein of the genre it’s aping, but it ends up feeling a little more like a straight-to-DVD sequel, the kind where the original likely starred Vin Diesel or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s a hyper-violent martial arts fantasy, but it’s also choppy, unevenly paced, and narrated by the RZA, who can mumble himself into unintelligibility at times, and has a voice much more suited to rapping than narration… Morgan Freeman he is not.
But that doesn’t mean this movie isn’t worth watching. It’s just that many of the “so bad it’s good” moments are unintentional. Which, I suppose, is the mark of the best “so bad they’re good” movies, even when they’re purposefully going for that label. Still, having watched the film, I think it’s probably more fun to be told about than to actually see for yourself. So I wrote up what I feel are the craziest and most noteworthy things about the film, to spare you from having your idyllic, unblemished vision of the RZA shattered by his first lackluster foray into filmmaking. Without further ado, welcome to a film where:
Russell Crowe Spends Most of the Movie Whoring
If you have a passing familiarity with this film, you may know it as that movie that stars RZA, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of. If you know a little more, you might be aware that it also stars some wrestler and one of the random interchangeable gals from Sucker Punch. And that guy from the James Bond movie with Madonna. But in all seriousness, what is Academy Award winner Russell Crowe doing in this film?
Well, aside from showing of his moobs, Russell Crowe spends most of the movie doing kinky things with prostitutes. Though he kills a guy in the intro (so you know he’s a bad ass), and kills a guy in the climax (so his character has a reason to exist), almost all of his interim time is spent dicking around with whores in Lucy Liu’s brothel. The movie makes it a point to cut back to Crowe’s “Mr. Knife, a/k/a Jack” (which I guess is kind of wordplay) several times throughout the film, just so we can be assured that, yes, okay, he’s still screwing hookers.
And when he’s not screwing them, he’s just wasting time with them. At one point they do him up in “yellow face” style asian make-up, giggling all the while, and if that sentence wasn’t offensive enough, Crowe then looks in a mirror and says “Me rikey.” Yes, really. Yes, in 2012. But I suppose the movie needs him to find various non-sexual things to do while spending most of the movie in the company of courtesans, because…
There’s a Crazy Amount of Violence, but NO Nudity
I’m not really the type of person who needs a movie to have nudity, but when I’m watching an “extended, unrated” cut of a movie where peoples’ heads get punched clean off and arms get pulled off or chopped off and people are gutted and eyeballs are popping out and so on, you don’t really expect that every single extra has a no-nudity clause in their contract. Oh wait, did I mention that a significant portion of the plot revolves around a whorehouse?
Lucy Liu is Madam Blossom, the proprietor of the Pink Blossom brothel and boss of all the hooker assassins. The movie is full of gratuitous scenes of sexual activity beyond the aforementioned Russell Crowe check-ins, but goes out of its way to make damn sure every lady of the night is totally SFW. There’s even a bathhouse scene where every woman is wearing a top or is covered in strategically placed bubbles except for one, who is shown entirely from behind as if we’re watching basic cable at 7:00 in the evening.
I have absolutely no idea why this is. We live in a Game of Thrones era where random naked background frolicking doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Again, I’m not saying all my movies need to have naked ladies in them, but if you were going to keep the boobs covered even in the unrated version, why even set so much of your story in a whorehouse? It’s clear that this movie operated for some reason with a strict no-boobs policy (excepting, of course, Russell Crowe’s), so how did we get so far along in the development of the brothel storyline without someone raising their hand and saying “wait, did we get boob waivers on all these girls?” It becomes distracting.
It Was Supposed to Cross Over with Django Unchained
The film takes place in “Jungle Village” which kinda seems like it should be offensive until you realize that you’re in a fantastical land where most of the warring clans are named after animals that pretty much don’t exist in Asia. Obviously this is a land where anything goes, where a black dude can be a blacksmith in a seemingly ancient Chinese-ish locale, and a white dude can also live there and have mystical metal skin and weird modern-looking tattoos. It’s like Avatar: The Last Airbender: Asian influenced, but not meant to be historically accurate or even exist in our world… right?
Well, apparently not, as one weird out-of-place flashback in the movie shows. RZA’s blacksmith character actually ends up in Asia after being freed from slavery in the United States, after which which he flees to China after killing some white folks. It’s kinda like Williams in Enter the Dragon. It’s a jarring scene that ruins your suspension of disbelief for all the wire-fighting martial arts and poofy-haired gangs that we’re supposed to take seriously. Well, okay, not seriously, but you know what I mean.
The reason for this backstory actually makes the whole thing even crazier: it was meant as part of a crossover with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Though the scene was never filmed due to scheduling conflicts, RZA was supposed to appear at a slave auction in Tarantino’s “Southern” that would have tied the two films together, meaning that while Leo DiCaprio and Sam Jackson were busy chewing scenery in the States, RZA was busy using his metal fists to fight metal-bodied men in China. And of course, Russell Crowe was doing weird stuff with hookers. But that’s probably what the real Russell Crowe is doing right now, don’t you think?
You may notice a familiar face or two in the flashback scenes, and they help to kind of distract you from how ridiculous the movie is. The first shows up as his mother in the American South scenes. That would be Pam Grier, veteran of blaxploitation flicks like Foxy Brown (with one X… two X’s would be that rapper who’s not Li’l Kim and not Nicki Minaj and also not important). She’s a slave who secures her son’s freedom by caring for her dying master. Of course, it ends up meaning nothing, because it turns out holding a piece of paper that says “I’m Free!” does little to convince anybody in the Deep South.
Later on, RZA finds his way to a Buddhist temple, where the Abbot should be familiar to anyone who saw Kill Bill. It’s frickin’ Pai Mei, the teacher of Uma Thurman’s Bride who trains her to be a human killing machine in Part 2. Okay, it’s not explicitly stated that it’s literally Pai Mei, but it is actor Gordon Liu playing an old wizened monk, although his Abbot seems much more peaceful than Pai Mei. Still, how insane would it be if this movie not only crossed over into Django, but Kill Bill as well?
If you, for some weird reason, only saw the first Kill Bill, and didn’t think it was worth it to watch The Bride get her bloody revenge, you still saw Liu, as Johnny Mo of the Crazy 88 gang. This was more his speed than playing an old man, as his career spans tons of martial arts films from the 70s and 80s, including The 36th Chamber of Shaolin which, as anyone familiar with Wu-Tang knows, might as well be called Everything The Wu-Tang Clan Ever Raps About. So RZA managed to get two icons from the grindhouse film genres he’s obviously emulating to appear in his film, which would add some interesting legitimacy if it wasn’t otherwise so batshit insane.
Thankfully (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) even in the unrated cut of the film, the insanity only lasts for an hour and forty-eight minutes. It could have been much, much worse, when you consider the following…
The Original Cut was FOUR HOURS LONG
Yes, four mind-numbing hours long. If this thing ever sees the light of day, part of me feels that I must watch it, if only to satisfy the perverse curiosity of how in the holy hell a movie that already drags on at under two hours could possibly be stretched out for more than four god damned hours. I’m reminded of Bilbo’s somber confession to Frodo that he feels like “butter stretched over too much toast” in Lord of the Rings. Seriously, it’s totally mystifying to think of how this thing could be any longer than it is, considering how much of the existing screen time is devoted to Russell Crowe doing absolutely freaking nothing.
But no, RZA actually wanted to split this puppy into two parts, Kill Bill style. And when you think about it, there are a lot of things that could be explained better, like the character of Poison Dagger, who just starts showing up for no reason in the middle of the movie and ends up being one of the central antagonists despite really just kind of appearing randomly at the bad guy table out of nowhere. It’s kind of like when Harriet the Spy spontaneously showed up as Buffy’s sister on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and everyone just acted like she’d been there all along.
Then there are the Wolf and Hyena clans, which are introduced and then done away with just as quick. Why is everyone fighting, again? It’s clear that the main plot eventually revolves around stealing government gold, but before that, clans just fight and get killed like it ain’t no thang. I guess these are rival gangs who are always battling each other, but it seems like they all get built up just to disappear. One clan is completely eliminated in the opening credits.
And apparently, RZA painstakingly built an entire world and culture (mostly revolving around crazy hairstyles), with very little of it being really explained in the finished product. There’s some cool stuff you can glean, like the Hyenas fighting with little skull-topped versions of those grasper things your grandfather uses so he doesn’t have to bend over. But it’s all gone as soon as it shows up, so you’re kind of overwhelmed by a bunch of ultimately meaningless details.
So, while it’s ultimately tantalizing to wonder what hidden gems might be uncovered in a four hour supercut (could there be… MORE Russell Crowe/prostitute fumbling around??), I have to say I think just under two hours is enough for me. Maybe some day RZA will be as good a director as he is a rapper and producer, but sadly it is not this day.