A blacksmith saves up money to free his lover from a brothel. The true heir to the Lion clan fights against the man raised as his brother who assassinated their leader. A volatile British man arrives at a Chinese brothel for nonstop pleasure. And a series of deadly assassins converge on a small town where a large stash of the Emperor's gold will be arriving at any moment.
These are the disparate threads of The Man with the Iron Fists, the filmmaking debut of RZA. RZA is the screenwriter (with Eli Roth), director, composer, and star of the modern Kung fu film. He is clearly well-versed in the genre but struggles to bring a lot of interesting ideas together in a sensible way.
We can thank the caliber of talent in his arsenal for how watchable the film turns out to be. Lucy Liu and Russel Crowe take on key narrative roles, helping to move the plot along even when the screenplay leaves huge questions in every scene. A wonderful array of martial arts performers--including Byron Mann, Ricky Yune, Cung Le, and David Bautista--carry the brilliant fight choreography of Corey Yuan. Eli Roth punches up the screenplay with strong one-liners and helps shape the meandering narrative into a close approximation of suspense.
The true standout of the film is the lush production and costume design. The Man with the Iron Fists is a relatively low budget film for so much emphasis on action and it looks like every penny went onscreen. Production Designer Drew Boughton put together lavish sets for all the major locations. The Pink Blossom (the brothel) is especially beautiful and well-planned. Every wall and corner is filled with beautiful but deadly traps to protect the girls of the establishment.
Thomas Chung designed strong, character defining costumes in variations of period clothing. From the excess of the Pink Blossom to the uniforms of the fighting clans, each major group of characters is easily identifiable when they appear onscreen. This attention to detail also accounted for the various fighting styles employed in the film. No character struggles to maneuver with their choice of wardrobe because any limitations actually enhance their battle skills.
No matter how good a film looks, if the screenplay is poorly conceived, it just won't hold up. That is the big problem in The Man with the Iron Fists. The fights are very clever, slowly revealing new information about the world, the characters, and all the conflicts that exist therein.
However, once the blood has dried and the weapons are sheathed, the story becomes a shambling mess of ideas. The tenuous connection between the scenes does not hold up because there is no clear narrative flow between the disparate cuts and jumps throughout the region. An attempt to use RZA as an all-knowing narrator only adds to the confusion, as his character's involvement in the overall arc is minimal until the narration stops halfway through.
There is a lot here to please an action fan, especially one who grew up watching Kung fu movies. The Man with the Iron Fists, however, only concerns itself with those moments. The fights are merely window dressing on an empty shell of a story that needed a much stronger hand to carve into shape.
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