CONTAINS HIIII-YAHHHHH THWAP SPOILERS
There's a lot wrong with this splashy, ultraviolent tribute to the period martial arts movies made by the Shaw Brothers in the 1970s, and much of it is down to Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, aka The RZA, because he wrote the story, co-wrote the screenplay, directed it, wrote much of the music for it and took the starring role in it. It's certainly terrific to look at, and some of the fight scenes are excessively crunchy, but while it's generally good sadistic fun while it's on, it's a long way from being a classic and, more seriously, it doesn't feel like a Shaw Brothers movie. Rather, it feels more like a Quentin Tarantino pastiche, and that's not just because it's got Quentin Tarantino Presents.... at the start.
The Man With The Iron Fists tells of Thaddeus the humble blacksmith (The RZA) who gets dragged into various clans' schemes to steal a shipment of the Emperor's gold. All he wants to do is leave town with his true love Lady Silk who works at the Pink Blossom brothel owned by Lucy Liu, but Silver Lion has taken over the evil Lion Clan: they want the gold but the true heir has escaped and is hiding in Jungle Village after a fierce fight with Brass Body, who's some kind of a cyborg. Also in town are the Emperor's undercover emissary Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), the Gemini warriors and the Hyena Clan; the gold is hidden under the brothel and the Emperor has sent in his elite Jackal troops to recover it....
Or something like that. It's absolute nonsense, but you don't watch The Man With The Iron Fists for its tightly constructed narrative any more than you watch Shaw Brothers movies for theirs. The action scenes are what count and generally they're pretty good and satisfyingly violent and destructive. They'd have been better if The RZA hadn't chopped them up with random and unnecessary split screen effects: you really need to be on the level of someone like Brian De Palma to pull off decent split screen and The RZA frankly isn't in that league. Nor is he a sufficiently charismatic actor for the lead role. In addition the blood spurts are done with unconvincing GCI rather than actual Kensington Gore and they look awful. Putting modern hip-hop and Wu-Tang Clan tracks over the film also detracts: a real Shaw Brothers movie would be tracked from the De Wolfe Library.
But despite all that I still enjoyed the movie. Russell Crowe's English accent doesn't wander nearly as much as the Barnsley to Dublin round trip it got stuck on in Robin Hood; the production design is fantastic and the melodrama and mayhem are suitably overplayed. And while the tribute act doesn't entirely come off, it's of a piece with Tarantino's exhumation of unfashionable genres of the past. More importantly, it's urging me to put a bunch of Shaw Brothers movies on the rentals queue. The Man With The Iron Fists is a long way from a success, but it's a stylish and honourable failure.