RZA’s kung-fu movie bonafides are beyond reproach, assuming, of course, that you’ve ever listened to any Wu-Tang Clan album. Between the dialogue samples and the myriad references that crop up in titles and lyrics, it doesn’t require a bit of effort to recognize the influence of martial arts films on the group. I mean, it’s right there in their name.
That’s the main reason why I had such high hopes for the RZA’s directorial debut, The Man With The Iron Fists.1 Based on the trailer (which I’ve posted above) it looked like a basic action film, but with the involvement of one of pop culture’s most visible kung-fu movie nerds, I wagered that the film would at least bring an interesting twist to the material.
Alas, aside from minor tweaks,2The Man With The Iron Fists is a film nestled firmly in every one of its genre’s tropes and constraints. There’s the treacherous villain, the hero in search of vengeance, the girlfriend of the protagonist whose ultimate fate is so obvious I was surprised she didn’t get stuffed inside a refrigerator. This is, of course, not to say that this is an especially bad film. On the contrary, it’s certainly a solid kung-fu flick. But, due to the reputation of those involved in the film’s creation, it’s disappointing that the final product never transcends its genre trappings.
Speaking of the film’s pedigree, the tertiary involvement of Quentin Tarantino3 elicits a couple of comparisons, neither of which reflects particularly well on The Man With The Iron Fists. The first is to Tarantino’s most recent film, Django Unchained, due to the similarities between the titular characters of each film. Aside from the superficial similarities of their backstories (both are freed slaves), both protagonists are clearly supposed to effect a sort of stoicism that simultaneously entices viewers, and holds them at an arm’s length.4 Jamie Foxx’s turn as Django is far more effective at this pursuit than RZA’s as the Blacksmith. You can chalk this up to inexperience on RZA’s part or to Foxx’s ineffable screen presence, or even things that were out of the actor’s hands, like the way their characters were written and presented. In my opinion, the difference stems from a confluence of all the reasons I just listed. But no matter how you slice it with your yin-yang sword, the fact is that the film’s title gives the Blacksmith as much depth as he’ll ever have.
The second comparison I alluded to earlier is much more apt (and obvious). I am, of course, referring to Tarantino’s own kung-fu flick(s) Kill Bill. That film is a mash-up of a movie that takes elements of dozens of genre pictures and puts them in a sausage grinder (and yes, that sentence could be used to describe any of Tarantino’s films). This allows Tarantino to break genre elements out of their usual trappings and create novel scenarios, images, and characters from them. The Man With The Iron Fists, on the other hand, is constantly hampered by a slavish devotion to its genre. I’m certain that the filmmakers hoped to make a platonic form of martial arts films, but what they wound up with just feels derivative.
Perhaps the most illuminating comparison, however, is to RZA’s work as a producer. While he, like most everyone in hip hop, utilizes samples when constructing beats, he always tries to balance it with his own original compositions and recordings. He’s stated that he tries to use “the sampler more like a painter’s palette than a Xerox.” Essentially, he tries to create works that incorporate elements of other pieces, but that still offer unique and novel elements.
Sadly, when it comes to The Man With The Iron Fists, his approach was far more Xerox than it was painter’s palette.
1. Another major reason is that I’m a huge fan / advocate / apologist of co-writer Eli Roth. NAH SCRATCH THAT LAST PART ALL HIS MOVIES RULE AND HE DOESN’T HAVE ANYTHING TO APOLOGIZE FOR.
2. To list them: the soundtrack, the fact that the protagonist (played by RZA) is an African-American ex-slave / expatriate, and that’s really about it.
3. The film’s title is preceded by “Quentin Tarantino presents” on the poster, which means he had almost nothing to do with the film.
4. For examples, see basically any movie Clint Eastwood ever made.