Friday, November 16, 2012

Nuthing ta F Wit

When I was younger, I used to have a friend who was REALLY big into Asian Martial arts flicks. Anytime we would hang out at his place, there would be some movie or another playing on his television. I already was somewhat familiar with the popular Bruce Lee, but it was through him that I was introduced to Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and Sammo Hung, years before their popularization in Hollywood. But it wasn't just these superstars that were in his VHS collection, but increasingly obscure titles that all but the most hardcore martial arts fans would know nothing about. These films often looked low budget, but made up for the imagery of not only what the human body could do (and most stars did their own stunts, remember) but the exaggerations through wirework that made for a wonderfully fantastical element to even the most grounded releases.

This same friend was also the one to introduce to me the New York rap group Wu-Tang Clan, often called the greatest and most influential hip hop group of all time. Nobody sounds quite like Wu-Tang, which is why the group has managed to keep their status for almost twenty years. De facto leader RZA apparently had as much respect for the old-school martial arts flicks as my childhood friend, because he directed and stars in The Man with the Iron Fists, an homage to the genre with big name stars Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu on hand.

That's going to be hell to clean out of the carpet.
Jungle village has its share of problems. The many clans are constantly at war, and the average folk just do their best to avoid being caught in the middle. When the Lion Clan, led by the treacherous Silver Lion (Byron Mann), makes a grab for power, every man, woman and child in Jungle village is in terrible danger. Their only hope of salvation? An opium-addicted mercenary (Crowe), the deposed son (Rick Yune) of Lion Clan's former ruler and the outsider Blacksmith (RZA), skilled in making exotic weaponry.

Oh, yeah. And Lucy Liu leads a brothel full of trained female assassins, as well.
The best parts of The Man with the Iron Fists? Well, leads Crowe and Lucy Liu add a bit of class to the cast, with an amazing on-screen chemistry that wishes you could see more of their characters together. Liu possesses the same charisma and allure that she brought to Ally McBeal over a decade ago, and forces control of every scene she enters. And Crowe, who was only able to be on set for ten days, does more with his role in that limited time than he has managed in the past decade of dedicated roles. For the first time in a long time, Crowe actually looks like he's having FUN. Maybe if he took roles like this more often, people would think more highly of his talents. Besides, they can't all be Gladiator. The soundtrack is solid and memorable, with new music not only from Wu-Tang but also The Black Keys, Kanye West and My Chemical Romance. The balance makes for one of the more pleasantly diverse soundtracks in recent memory, and stands out as one of the film's main selling points. The action scenes are decent, with no major problems sticking out, though for a movie with such obvious reverence for the genre, I wish there had been more major fight scenes than the few included.. MwtIF also carries with it a wonderful campiness; it's difficult to be too critical when things are far too silly, both visually and verbally, to really be taken seriously in the first place.

His name? Wait for it... Jack Knife.
Of course, that doesn't mean the experience is flawless. This is RZA's feature directorial debut, and it painfully shows on multiple levels. A couple of actors - Mann and Cung Le - manage to put in decent performances, but most of the acting is so bad that it completely defies the "so bad it's good" category, especially the surprisingly weak Yune. Worse is former WWE superstar David Bautista as a prototypical villain. But the absolute worst parts of the cast are the insipid Jamie Chung and RZA himself. Chung has shown no sign of improvement after poor appearances in Sucker Punch and The Hangover Part 2. All the potential she once had has turned to vapor, perhaps never to be seen again. RZA is slightly worse an actor than he is a director, taking himself and his film far too seriously and only popping during a brief flashback sequence close to the movie's climax. His dull narrative is a problem, as it's obvious he doesn't trust the audience to follow along such simplistic lines, or couldn't find a better way to convey it. You need a scorecard to keep track of all the characters and double crosses, and many potential storylines were left either on the drawing board or the cutting room floor. It's obvious that while Quentin Tarantino has attached his name to this, it's only in the most perfunctory sense; he definitely did his part to inspire this, but Man with the Iron Fists has a purely primordial feel, possessing Tarantino's carnage without any of the abject social commentary.

The Eyes have it!
As martial arts flicks go, Man with the Iron Fists will most certainly go unnoticed and unseen by general filmgoers. It's not a bad experience, and you get the feeling that RZA will improve with future projects, though perhaps he should choose one side of the camera and stick to it. But it's also a very specific experience; you know exactly what you will be getting into, and most people won't care one way or the other how this one turns out. RZA emulates the feel of a classic martial arts film, but never does anything to expand that experience for others. For hardcore martial arts fanatics, this is a must-see. For everyone else... not nearly so much.

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