“I’m the baddest man alive,” goes the chorus for one of the many hip hop songs in “The Man With The Iron Fists,” the directorial debut of RZA. The director is actually the subject of the song, as he plays the title character, a blacksmith seeking revenge for being wronged by a group of villains who sweep into China’s rowdy Jungle Village. But at a certain point, you have to wonder: why is he so bad? RZA, who has logged hours within the supporting casts of “American Gangster,” “Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai” and “Due Date,” plays the taciturn weapons maker with the same dour expression that suggests a dullard, which RZA certainly doesn’t seem to be. As a musician and lyricist, he is without peer, but as a leading man, his face hangs like Snoopy, his voice monotone and highlighting none of the musicality of his rhymes. That being said, the movie isn’t called “The Man With The Iron Charisma.”
Fortunately, “The Man With The Iron Fists” in a three-pronged affair, pivoting between The Blacksmith, cagey interloper Jack Knife, and the ninja X-Blade. The last, played by Rick Yune, is a knife-tossing action figure, handsome and CG-augmented, angered at how his late father Gold Lion was betrayed by underlings Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le). Yune is attractive and engaging to watch, even if his traits rarely evolve beyond kicking and punching.
As such, he’s essentially deployed as a weapon within the narrative, though this isn’t true for the more appropriately named Jack Knife. Cagey and eccentric, Knife is played by a portly, Oliver Reed-ish Russell Crowe, long having been freed from the requirements of awards-season leading man status. It’s easy to consider how Crowe, a gregarious personality in real life, has fallen from the A-List. It’s more interesting to consider that perhaps he enjoys chewing scenery as a sleazy supporting player -- it’s a surprise that Crowe’s name is in the credits like any other actor, and he’s not given some sort of grandiose senior billing like “special appearance by.” Crowe’s formidable gut belies his own intoxicated swagger, and it’s his anachronistic presence that provides some star wattage to this decidedly goofy movie.
RZA has captured the spirit of earlier martial arts films, from the furious wuxia combat sequences to the ridiculously convoluted flashbacks. One takes pallid “Grindhouse” (and not grindhouse) techniques to flesh out the fairly pedestrian plantation background of the Blacksmith, where his mother is played by Pam Grier in a touch that feels obligatory more than organic. You wonder exactly if we have a filmmaker in RZA, who shoots the action too close, relying on the quick fury of the martial artists cast segueing into a series of money shots that shows just how pleased this film is in replicating yesterday’s martial arts classics. One of the thrills of those pictures would be seeing an actor perform an improbable stunt as if he were brushing his teeth, the camera capturing the moment casually, like a magician changing his clothes. RZA remains in love with this genre, to the point where any eye-popping tactic must be magnified by a close-up, possibly aided with a crane shot. His eagerness to share obscures exactly what it is that makes these movies so exciting. Meanwhile, even basic transitions suffer from odd camera placement, some shots entirely incompetent as if the second unit work was left to a sight-challenged dwarf. Why yes, this shoulder close-up is entirely essential.
As the film’s enemies, Mann and Le are entertaining antagonists. Le seems almost permanently trapped within a series of ostentatious kung fu poses, growling and snarling with an animalistic menace. Mann, however, is a flamboyant and handsome presence, doling out absurd speeches while providing enough boo-and-hiss moments for this type of picture. But most of the bad guy spotlight is stolen by Brass Body, the independent assassin played by wrestler David Bautista. Brass Body makes his entrance by lifting a group of children onto his shoulders and carrying them around town. It’s a likable touch for the handsome brute, who soon showcases his ability to mutate his skin to become an asskicker encased in gold, an amusing visual refreshingly unexplained by any exposition in regards to his physiology.
“The Man With The Iron Fists” makes sense as a picture focused on spectacle. The story almost seems secondary to the flights of fancy, most of them occurring in the Zhang Yimou-derived brothel run by Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu). Knives and kicks fly as our title character fades into the background, mostly because of an overstuffed narrative, but also because of RZA’s low-energy performance. His is the tragic storyline, seeing him leading a life caught between warring tribes, desperate for a new beginning with prostitute Lady Silk (Jamie Chung). But for all the film’s efforts to invest you in the story of a noble weapons-maker, you just wish he would have stayed around and kept silently crafting weapons. [B-]