RZA in The Man with the Iron FistsRZA’s directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists was one of the most anticipated films coming out (for me anyway) last autumn. RZA is a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, the rap collective obsessed with old Shaw Brothers kung-fu flicks. It was produced by Quentin Tarantino, co-written by Eli Roth and seemed like something that RZA had been building towards his whole career thanks to soundtrack work on Kill Bill and his work on the anime Afro Samurai. Then the film came out and was a bit of a box office disappointment and met with middling reviews. Now that it’s out on DVD and Blu-Ray, the home venue is perhaps the best place to enjoy the films particular charms.

In a small village in China, several gangs with fantastic coiffures fight for supremacy. When some gold from the emperor is trafficked through the village, the leader of the dominant Lion gang is assassinated and other gangs are brought to the town to cause mayhem and violence including Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) all of them fighting for the gold. Amongst the carnage a blacksmith (RZA) works making weapons for all of the gangs to kill each other with. His only solace is with a prostitute named Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) in Madame Blossom’s (Lucy Liu) brothel. When the blacksmith is horrifically wounded he is forced into the battle.

On paper all of this sounds like brilliant, ludicrous mayhem. In practice it’s somewhat of a different story. The film has some major problems that it can’t seem to get around; chief amongst them is its screenplay. The films first hour is mainly focused on the different gangs and characters that come to town and start fights. It lacks momentum and focus though, it’s almost as if RZA and Eli Roth were so in love with the setting and the atmosphere of old school kung fu violence that they were content to just wallow and hang out there for an hour or so.

An example of this can be found with Russell Crowe’s character, his entrance is typically brash and over the top and he inflicts the first ultra-gory moment in a film full of them, but then the script has him just hang out and indulge in perversion with Madame Blossom’s prostitutes for the next half an hour and his motives remain a mystery. Though you might be left scratching your head, much of this first hour is very entertaining. The fight scenes are all choreographed by Cory Yuen and though his work is not up to the same standard as that of Yuen Wo Ping, it’s still quite well done and provides the requisite thrills. Obviously the soundtrack is amazing as well.

When the titular character comes into focus as played by the RZA the running time only has about 30 minutes left. The problem here is that RZA chose to play this character himself. Great musician and concept man he may well be, but RZA has no presence at all as an actor. At no time does this become more apparent than with his scenes with Russell Crowe who gnaws away at the scenery as RZA just delivers flat lines with no life at all. It’s at this point in the movie when you are supposed to be compelled by the heroes quest for pay back in the final act, because of the lack of charisma by our hero though, you just can’t seem to care so it’s another 30 minutes of violence with no real motivation or weight.

If violence and kung-fu is your thing then The Man with the Iron Fists may well be an acceptable night’s entertainment. It has swagger and style but no actual substance and is a big disappointment considering the talent involved.