As endearing as it is exhausting, “The Man With the Iron Fists” bears strong resemblance to a hyperactive puppy: sloppy, scatterbrained, manic and migraine-inducing, but possessing an earnest sense of excitement. Working with actors, a crew and resources of a far higher caliber than his level of filmmaking expertise would seem to countenance, first-time writer-director-star the RZA turns in a postmodern martial-arts experiment that’s equal parts Shaw Brothers, Adult Swim and amphetamine-fueled student film. For an utterly bonkers vanity project, it’s more fun than it ought to be, and should bring a small yet sufficient ruckus to the B.O.
If any figure from hip-hop’s golden age was going to make the leap from rhymes to reels, the Wu-Tang Clan’s founder, rapper, producer and overall shogun certainly seems the most obvious. Leading eight of his disparate compatriots to phenomenal success in the 1990s, RZA served as the great Staten Island collective’s unquestioned auteur, composing all its early music, maintaining a consistent aesthetic and mythology, and ably stage-managing a large group of eccentric, unpredictable talents.
Yet translating this relevant experience to film is hardly a seamless switch, even when the subject matter is as compatible as it is here. Assisted by mentor Quentin Tarantino (for whom he scored “Kill Bill,” and who gets a “presented by” credit here) and co-scripter Eli Roth, RZA at times seems too excited to be behind the camera.
A giddy prologue sets a grainy kung fu throwdown to the Wu-Tang’s “Shame on a Nigga,” whereupon RZA’s voiceover lays out a rather simple premise in nearly incomprehensible fashion. Set in a 19th-century Chinese hamlet where, naturally, all relevant business, banking and governance are conducted at the local brothel, the film concerns a humble, escaped-slave blacksmith (RZA), who dreams of whisking his girlfriend (Jamie Chung) away from her obligations with the local madam (Lucy Liu).
Things are complicated by the arrival of a gaggle of unsavories seeking a treasure of some sort, most problematically a sinister crime lord (Cung Le) and his hulking thug (David Bautista), with eyes on the Blacksmith’s girl and a brass body capable of dispensing severe punishment. But help arrives from a mysterious, knife-toting British hedonist (Russell Crowe) and a be-daggered mercenary (Rick Yune) out to protect his own neck.
For the first half-hour, nearly every shot seems to contain a dramatic reveal or zoom; things are frenetically mashed together with scarce lockdowns or breathers to establish a concrete sense of space or mood. The finished film was apparently chopped down from a four-hour initial cut, and RZA’s urgency to incorporate all his favorite footage at the expense of coherence or pacing is obvious and overwhelming.
Yet the stewy, overheated enthusiasm eventually proves contagious, and by the time the pic finally finds its groove toward the end — subdividing the screen into comicbook-like panels and splashing slow-motion rivers of blood in graceful patterns across the camera — an anything-goes midnight-movie mood triumphs.
Though he’s notched memorable supporting roles in the past, RZA is too withdrawn an onscreen presence to carry the film, even when he’s outfitted with the titular bodily modification. Fortunately, he’s supported by a fierce assembly of rock-solid pros who let loose with high degrees of good-humor: especially Le, who speaks English in a hysterical approximation of the clenched-jawed dubbing of vintage kung fu pics, and Crowe, who smirkingly goes for broke to an extent that viewers haven’t seen from him since, well … ever.
Though the script is of tangential importance here, its inability to stick to a consistent tone can be groan-worthy, especially when RZA’s voiceover breaks from its zenlike contemplativeness into lines like “These motherfuckers had a Gatling gun and more bullets than China has rice.” The score from RZA and Howard Drossin is wonderful, with touches of Ennio Morricone and found sound, even if the film’s reliance on anachronistic soundtrack music from Isaac Hayes and Kanye West can distract.