Review: 'The Man With the Iron Fists' Packs Punch After Punch

I believe it was U-God who once said "RZA beats is outta control." And outta control they are.

When they write the book on remix culture, well, they won't write a book, will they? When they assemble the YouTube mashup on remix culture, one has to imagine that there'll be a nice section dedicated to the RZA. As someone who spends a great deal of his time avoiding hip-hop (it just isn't my thing) even I am familiar with his work, and not in that "Oh, God, won't that jeep turn down the bass, he's making the whole intersection quake" kind of way.

For "The Man With the Iron Fists," RZA (the Pete Townshend of the Wu Tang Clan, to put it in classic rock terms) has a remarkable knack for creating soundscapes that are both toe-tapping and hallucinatory, incorporating evocative stingers from old movies as well as microthemes hidden in old jazz piano runs. His music has always been cinematic, and that's without even addressing the lyrical content. A love-letter to the grindhouse martial arts classics of the Shaw Brothers is unquestionably the right first foray into filmmaking for this man.

Starring as "the Blacksmith" (and, later, the titular character), RZA is an outsider living in the mythical Jungle City, a timeless and slightly magical place at the mercy of various warring tribes. Trouble begins when the Emperor has to send a shipment of gold to –

Oh, wait, before we get to that, there's the opening credits. A bunch of people (I'm not sure we ever find out who they were) are beating the hell out of one another to the tune of the Wu Tang Clan's "Shame on a Nigga," and when a kick or punch lands, there's a freeze frame and the image turns to a drawing as the names come up. It's awesome.

Okay, so, the Emperor has to send a shipment of gold up north, so he entrusts Silver Lion (something of an Asian David Bowie type) but there's a double-cross. Then the Gemini Warriors (a sort of two-person Middle Kingdom Pinkertons) have the gold and, well, by the time they get to Jungle City, there's going to be a throw-down. Of course, the X-Blade (whose suit contains Captain Caveman-esque pocket universes from which knives can always be jettisoned) will be there, and he'll be looking for revenge. The Englishman Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) will be there, too, and while he claims drinking and whoring are his primary business, we know he has a deeper goal.

"The Man With the Iron Fists" is the type of movie that feels like you are always coming in half-way through, even if you watch it from the beginning. As an exercise in genre, this is the highest compliment. A true grindhouse film should never be the sole focus of the evening's entertainment. Back in the day, you stumbled into the theater to get out of the rain. Today, you are rolling with your buds, checking out this movie before you hit the party you were mostly invited to. In "Fists," the action scenes are gory, absurd and terrific, but during the talking parts, please, by all means, ruffle through your bag to find that smuggled tall boy or run out to the lobby to get Twizzlers.

There's an unending group of gangs and villains introduced but, in time, it whittles down to a three vs. three. (Lucy Liu is involved, too, and is the only woman in the picture allowed to be more than a cooing prostitute.) The boss fights are of the type to inspire audience participation and, so long as the folks in your crowd have a pulse, there'll be a few hearty "ooh!"s and "yeah!"s.

The specifics of the plot are about as convoluted as tax code, but the big beats (get gold and/or revenge) are simple enough for even the most highly intoxicated Saturday night group to follow. There are even a few quality jokes in there.

"The Man With the Iron Fists" may not, however, be quite the genre pastiche you are expecting. Despite Quentin Tarantino's stamp of approval, it is no "Kill Bill," rich in signifiers from all of film history. It is fairly straightforward, albeit unrestrained with the arterial sprays and innovative weaponry. (Crowe's gun-knife, or maybe it is a knife-gun, is particularly nifty.) Sadly, there isn't quite as much music as you may be hoping for (RZA beats are TOO controlled!) but when the soundtrack bolts up it is greatly welcomed. And the closing credits are almost as cool as the opening ones.

It's only been a few hours and I'm already forgetting "The Man With the Iron Fists." But I did have a big grin on my face as I kicked back and watched a bunch of people kill each other for no discernible reason. It's certainly not for everyone, but if your interests lie in hip-hop or martial arts, I'd dare call this one you can't miss.

Grade: B-

Movie & TV Awards 2018