Silver Screen: The Man with the Iron Fists **1/2
It's hip-hop chopsocky when Wu-Tang Clan emperor RZA directs his first feature, which exists squarely in the neutral zone between pastiche, homage, and vanity project. But RZA has assembled an odd and impressive group of collaborators, including producer Quentin Tarantino, Hostel writer Eli Roth, blaxploitation icon Pam Grier, professional wrestler Dave “Batista” Bautista, and noted angry Australian Russell Crowe. The result is a frenetic, entertaining mishmash in which these disparate performers strike an interesting balance... except when they don't.
The political backdrop of the film is surprisingly complicated and semi-uninteligible, mostly because it's delivered as flat exposition by star RZA, playing a simple blacksmith dragged into national intrigue. The second-in-command of the Lion Clan, Silver Lion (Byron Mann), assassinates his boss Golden Lion in an attempt to make a larger power grab. He plans to steal a shipment of government gold. A slew of rival clans want their hands on the gold as well, even as the Zen Yi (Rick Yune), Golden Lion's son, returns to town seeking revenge. Also new in town is the brash Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) with his steampunk-mechanized buckknife and hearty sexual appetite. He's staying at a brothel run by the deadly Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), who's hatching a scheme of her own.
RZA's unnamed Blacksmith is an escaped slave trying to lead a quiet life in China. His dramatic backstory is, like so much of The Man with the Iron Fists, a blur of flashback cutaways with voiceover narration filling in the gaps. The Blacksmith avoids the mounting conflict in town even as rival clans force him to forge weapons and his beloved Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute in Madam Blossom's brothel, is threatened by the outsiders.
Eventually the Blacksmith will forge an unlikely alliance to battle off invading forces and restore balance to the town's warring factions, but not until, in one of the movie's signature scenes, his arms are bloodily lopped off and he's forced to replace them with... well, you've read the title.
The Man with the Iron Fists succeeds at its top two priorities: have a banging soundtrack and some crazy, frenzied action. In addition to Wu-Tang Clan songs, RZA collaborates with a slew of other artists, including Kanye West and the Black Keys. The action, meanwhile, is heavy on the wire work and arterial spray. It's well-choreographed and flagrantly cartoonish, occasionally accentuated with more distinctly American brutality that reeks of Roth.
Everything that's not fighting or hip-hop, on the other iron fist, is not so great, from the unnecessarily convoluted storyline to the endless voiceovers to RZA's leaden turn as a metalsmith. The soundtrack is great and the movie has flourishes of real visual panache-- especially the set designs in Madam Blossom's house of ill repute-- and some memorable images of stylized violence. But casting himself as the Blacksmith was a patently bad idea, and his lack of presence is felt even more strongly when he's around his more experienced costars. On a hip-hop acting scale from Will Smith to 50 Cent, RZA is way over in Fiddy territory, along with DMX and Ice-T.
Come for the fighting. Stay for the music. Ignore the rest.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.