Homage is a tricky thing — you can be full of love for the object of your tribute, and recreate its trappings with accuracy and sincerity, but that doesn’t mean your results will match the original.
Take “The Man with the Iron Fists,” the first film directed by RZA, founding father of legendary hip-hop combo the Wu-Tang Clan. From the name of his group to the look of his movie, this is a guy who has clearly watched a whole lot of vintage martial-arts movies. If I were on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and my multiple-choice answers were down to “Five Deadly Venoms” and “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” this is the guy I’d want for my lifeline.
I’d even hire him to create one of those fake trailers in “Grindhouse,” since he clearly appreciates the pacing and the acting style of the Shaw Brothers kung fu classics of the 1970s. Instead, RZA hooked up with “Grindhouse”-meisters Eli Roth (who co-wrote “Fists”) and Quentin Tarantino (who “presents” this new film) to create this full-on, feature-length homage.
The blood spurts, the knives shoot out, and the fists fly — but “The Man with the Iron Fists” never takes off. As the old saying goes, RZA knows the words, but he doesn’t know the music.
He’s also not actor enough to tackle the pivotal role he’s given himself, as Blacksmith in Jungle Village, a tiny hamlet beset by various warring clans. Blacksmith just wants to liberate his lover Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) from the brothel owned by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), but instead he must forge weapons for members of the Lion and Fox clans.
The Lions have problems of their own — engaged by the emperor to protect a shipment of gold, second-in-command Silver Lion (Byron Mann) assassinates Gold Lion (Kuan Tai Chen) with the intent of stealing the gold. Word of his treachery reaches Gold Lion’s son Zen Yi (Rick Yune), who returns to Jungle Village seeking vengeance.
Meanwhile, mysterious Englishman Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) shows up at Madam Blossom’s with a vast array of appetites — and an even more varied collection of weapons.
Word is that RZA originally had a four-hour cut that he hoped to release in two parts, “Kill Bill”–style, but instead was forced to slash his vision down to 90 minutes. That might excuse the choppiness of the plot and exposition, but it doesn’t explain why the fighting scenes are so listless and the acting (with the notable exception of Liu and Crowe, who were smart enough to create their own amusement) so stiff.
Regarding the latter, the performances aren’t even bad in an homage-to-the-bad-acting-of-the-original way; they’re just dull and not ironically so. As for the action sequences, the choreography and camera movements suggest 1970s chop-socky, but they are simulacra under glass — it’s like watching a bad high school production of “West Side Story,” where the Jets and the Sharks are clearly never going to hurt each other. (The midnight audience that watched the film with me didn’t whoop or laugh a single time during these gory but bloodless melees.)
The one fresh idea that “The Man with the Iron Fists” has — namely, to contrast the 18th century settings with contemporary hip-hop music — is quickly abandoned; after the first one or two fight scenes, we’re back to very generic scoring. The film also might have scored points for allowing the African-American Blacksmith character to exist in feudal China without explaining how he got there…but no, they explain it, in a tedious flashback that adds little except an all-too-brief cameo by an exploitation legend.
If RZA wanted to host a retrospective of kung fu classics, I’d be first in line. But his admiration for the genre doesn’t translate into capably executing it himself.