Making his big-screen debut as writer and director, RZA's 'The Man with the Iron Fists' is only partly a glorifying love-letter to classic martial-arts films. In the larger scheme of things and by all appearances, the 96-minute movie does seem to be little more than that. But for those well-versed in the genre and its history, the kung-fu actioner also pushes things slightly further. It's more of a dream pieced together from fragmented memories and a variety of sources, possibly even a desire for how some of us wish to remember those awesome films. The sign for Jungle Village almost reads like Jung (as in Carl) village. Whether that's intentional is a whole other matter, but still, it makes for an interesting footnote.
In similar methodology to Quentin Tarantino, RZA makes a hodgepodge spectacular of genre fare, which looks back with fondness and admiration specifically at the wuxia style of filmmaking. Working from a script he co-wrote with Eli Roth, 'Iron Fists' demonstrates RZA's intimate knowledge of Chinese cinema, mixing together three decades of the genre's golden age into a large-scale mishmash of kung-fu action. An audience's level of enjoyment and appreciation for this movie, it should be noted, will likely depend on their familiarity with the works of King Hu, Lau Kar-leung, Chang Cheh and other productions from the Shaw Brothers Studios. To some degree, this is the film's largest drawback as many will probably not know what the heck to make out of all the nonsense, something Tarantino has clearly learned to overcome.
All manner of formulaic clichés and tropes come into play here, not as a fault but as deliberate characteristics of the genre. Warring clans in Jungle Village fight for control over the community with the governor's gold being the catalyst that brings the Lion Clan ahead of the rest. The gang's leader, Silver Lion (Byron Mann), is a comical effeminate mix with David Bowie attitude and a wild Prince-like hairdo. The owner of the Pink Blossom brothel, Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), is one tough but incredibly sexy female warrior, reminiscent of Cheng Pei-pei or the more recent Brigitte Lin. Even we get a little bit of the weirdly fantastical when pro-wrestler and MMA fighter David Bautista shows up as mercenary Brass Body. There's also a wink-wink reference to characters staying at the Dragon Inn although the final showdown takes place in the brothel.
Keeping to some wuxia traditions, there's also mention of a shaolin school that imparts some Buddhist philosophies about the mind and body, which is later revisited for the climax. Only, this school is never attacked or destroyed by an evil competitor. The former hip-hop artist of the Wu-Tang Clan, himself, stars as a former student of the monastery, working diligently as the village's blacksmith. Rick Yune as Zen-Yi, the son of the Lion Clan's original leader who was murdered at the beginning, offers the plot's revenge angle. Mixing things up further is Russell Crowe's knife-wielding British soldier, bringing an amusing Italian Western feel to the production along with the accompanying music. And finally, the film also features a Blaxploitation element for good measure when Pam Grier makes a brief appearance as the blacksmith's mother.
'The Man with the Iron Fists' is far from perfect or even the best imitation of exploitation cinema, but it's not bad for a first-time filmmaker, done with lovingly admiration and intimate knowledge of the genre. The movie is a fun piece of popcorn entertainment, filled with arterial sprays, lots of hand-to-hand combat, split-screen mixed with wipes and noticeably bad editing, which I can only hope was intentional because the filmmakers break the 180-degree rule on more than one occasion. Ultimately, RZA's 'Iron Fists' is a hyper-kinetic, hyperbolic and doting satire of cinematic styles and conventions, meshed together into a practical storyline that runs linear but is not always entirely comprehensible. I suppose, in the end, we should be grateful that a directorial debut such as this didn't turn out more unintelligible or reprehensible. It's just fun.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'The Man with the Iron Fists' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with an UltraViolet Digital Copy code. A DVD-9 copy sits comfortably opposite a Region Free, BD50 disc. Both are housed inside a blue, eco-elite case with a lightly embossed and glossy slipcover. The unrated version, which runs 12 minutes longer, is also made available and shows a couple extra scenes of dialogue along with more blood and graphic action. At startup, viewers can skip through a few internet-based trailers and arrive at Universal's standard menu selection while full-motion clips and music play in the background.
'The Man with the Iron Fists' comes out swinging with a stunning, near-reference quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-encode. Shot on the Red One camera system, the picture is consistently razor-sharp, exposing every pore and imperfection in the faces of the cast. Complexions show lifelike textures in close-ups with natural flesh tones while individual hairs are distinct and resolute. The architecture and design of the village is highly-detailed, revealing every nook and cranny, from the grain of wood in the furniture and outside columns to the beautiful artwork and stage production of the Pink Blossom brothel. Every line in the stitching and design of the costumes is precise and very well-defined.
Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the digital-to-digital transfer is richly-saturated with a vibrant assortment of colors. Primaries, particularly the reds in the fountains of blood and the walls of the brothels, are sumptuous and leap off the screen. Secondary hues, especially the bright yellow gold of the dragon artwork and jewelry, are radiating with energy and life. Blacks are inky rich and luxurious, penetrating deep into the frame with excellent gradational details within the shadows and adding a great deal of three-dimensional depth. Contrast is also spot-on and comfortably bright with crisp, brilliant whites, but one or two scenes suddenly dip ever so slightly, washing out the video just a tad. Otherwise, this high-def presentation is sure to please all viewers.
On the audio front, 'Iron Fists' also packs a serious punch with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that'll knock you off your couch.
Starting with the Universal logo, the design packs an amazingly powerful and commanding bass that resonates throughout the room. Whether it's giving a serious wallop to each kick and punch or providing the music with weight and depth, the subwoofer gets a gratifying workout. A couple of ultra-low frequencies add to the enjoyment and make the action sequences all the more fun to watch.
As for the upper ranges, the lossless mix delivers clean distinction between the mids and highs, coming in loud and sharply clear when the swords start swinging and the iron fists start smashing. An excellent channel separation generates a wide and spacious imaging, but vocals can be drowned out somewhat during the most chaotic scenes although conversations remain generally intelligible.
Rear activity is keep at a near-constant, employing a great variety of atmospherics that are discrete and plentiful. The loudest segments and action sequences naturally come with a wealth of effects that move from one speaker to the next with flawless panning. The quieter moments exhibit a more subtler elegance and a lighter touch while the score and song selections spread all around, enveloping the listener with highly satisfying and immersive soundfield. Overall, it's a fantastic lossless mix fans will really enjoy.
Making his big-screen debut as writer and director, RZA displays his complete love and adoration of Chinese martial-arts cinema with 'The Man with the Iron Fists.' Essentially a wet-dream of the wuxia genre, your level of enjoyment pretty much amounts to your familiarity with those classic kung fu movies, which is both the movie's strength and weakness, but ultimately not half bad for a first go-around. The Blu-ray comes with a near-reference audio and video presentation that will surely please fans, but supplements are a grave disappointment. Nevertheless, those with a love of the genre and the filmmaker will be generally pleased. Give it a rent.