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Opening to a showdown between two martial arts masters, set to the beat of the Wu-Tang Clan's "Shame On A Nigga this opening scene essentially sets the tone of what is to follow here with Rapper, Producer, defacto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan making both his writing and directing debut. For the established RZA fanbase it will come as little surprise that he would choose to make an homage to the classic Kung fu movies of the Shaw Bros. Considering that how frequentlythese movies have been sampled for the Wu-Tang Clan's albums, while RZA has frequently expressed his love for the Martial Arts genre in the past so it would only be inevitable that he would eventually get around to making one of his own. This is not to say that it has not happened sooner through lack trying, considering that the project has been in development since 2003 when he was produced the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill", later being joined by Eli Roth after RZA explained the premise for the film to him on a flight from Iceland to LA.
Set In nineteenth century China, Jungle Village is home to several warring clans. The village blacksmith (RZA) creates deadly weapons for the clans, intending to use his payments to purchase the freedom of his lover Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), and escape the village. The region's governor tasks the Lion Clan's leader Gold Lion (Kuan Tai Chen) with protecting a large shipment of gold that must pass through the village. Gold is betrayed by his lieutenants Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le), who plan to steal the gold. Gold's son Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) soon learns of his father's murder and sets off to the village to seek revenge, while the Emperor's undercover emissary Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) arrives at Jungle Village to monitor the gold as the stage is soon set for epic showdown.
As a fan of the movies that this film is drawing inspiration from, I certainly got a kick out of this film, in much the same way that I did with "Kill Bill" which clearly seems to have been the main source of directing inspiration for RZA with the film is very much in the same Neo-grindhouse style, while the "Quentin Tarantino Presents" label only further cements its place as part of the Neo Grindhouse world that Tarantino and Robert Rodreigez have been crafting over the last few years with films like Machete and most importantly "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" the two films which made up their powerhouse double feature "Grindhouse", which the UK would sadly never get to see when the Weinstein's decided to use the US box office for the general opinion of the rest of the world (cheers for that). As with the other films which have appeared within the genre, RZA has not felt compelled to stick strictly to the Shaw Bros. template, something especially seen with him shunning a more traditional Asian soundtrack in favour of a more Hip Hop flavoured one, like the ones seen in both "Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai" and "Afro Samurai" (also produced by RZA) and the anime series "Samurai Champloo" and here it is none the less effective
The plot despite being multistrand still works from the most paper thin of plotting, as Gold or revenge are the sole motivations for the characters seen here, with RZA's blacksmith providing a gravely voice over generally providing any information you require regarding the various factions in play. Needless to say thanks to the sheer amount of characters involved it does get at times slightly confusing knowing who belongs with who. On the flip side of this though, the numerous characters are one of the strengths of the film, seeing how individual each one is, as RZA's knowledge of the genre really comes into play, especially with his character design frequently giving nods to memorable characters from other Kung Fu movies, with a prime example being former WWE wrester turned MMA fighter David Bautista who here appears as Brass Body, seemingly a reworking of the steel body warlord seen in "Fist of the North Star" a film RZA has previous named as being one of his favourites. This is not however to say that every character is a copy or a reworking as the film still features plenty of truly original characters like Crowe's Jack Knife and RZA's titular iron armed blacksmith only add to the fun, much like the cameo's by Pam Grier as the blacksmiths mother, aswell as Gordon Liu as his Kung Fu mentor "The Abbot" who appears in the mandatory training montage / flashback.
The cast all seem to be game especially playing such frequently outlandish characters with Crowe handling most of the dramatic heavy lifting, while also getting most of the best lines in the film. Equally on form is Lucy Lui as local brothel owner Madame Blossom who also heads up her own kick ass team of female Ninja's called "The Black Widows" as she reworks her "Kill Bill" character O-Ren Ishii with satisfying results. On the lower end of acting ability though is RZA, who while perhaps not exactly known for his acting ability is still watchable here, if still not exactly big emotion and certainly still manages to embody the role of the blacksmith aswell providing a suitably atmospheric voice over.
However the real star of the show is bone crunching fight scenes choreographed by Corey Yuen, with RZA aiming for spectacle and variety as each fight sequence is different from the next and culminating in a multi-fight brothel showdown which is very much a satisfying payoff to the film, despite RZA due to delays in shooting opting to use CGI for some of the more tricky gore aspect, which thankfully are subtle enough to go unnoticed, while Yuen's inventive choreography provides more than an enough of an enjoyable distraction combined with some at times bold cinematography make for a powerful combination.
True this film may have its flaws, but for the established fans of Hong Kong cinema they will find much to enjoy here, especially when the film is so stylistically close to its source material, yet still original enough to hold to eliminate any feelings of Déjà vu and compared to some of the films which have made this years "Best Film" list for the Oscars / BAFTA's I would say with a perhaps a couple of exceptions (Django unchained being a main one) that this was a much more entertaining film and one I would love to revisit, over enduring one of those films again.
Despite the big, Hollywood-recognised names such as Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth being painted on its marketing campaign to give this low-budget martial arts flick a big push, the fact remains...the director of his terribly trashy, often quite awkward and very style-over-substance film is RZA, the American rapper making his big debut in the film industry. The plot makes very little sense, the characters often have no purpose, a lot of its acting is atrocious, but even worse is the clunky, unintentionally hilarious script that RZA also co-wrote. And hello there Russell Crowe, what on earth are you doing here? Pulling a Nicolas Cage career nose-dive? It certainly looks like it - dedicating his time and effort (okay, it only took 10 days to film his scenes but still...) to participate in this blood-soaked mess, playing a drunk, opium-addicted warrior from the west who travels to China, who also has a thing for killing with his fancy pistol-knife, as well as Chinese prostitutes.
Yes, sex, violence and chaos all feature in the film, the latter in the form of the film's very distracting soundtrack consisting mostly of RZA's own and similar sounding genre of music, accompanying the scenes where characters are sliced and diced in various slick and fluid manner - which brings us to the only standout feature of the film: its action and choreography. Whenever the weapons are out and people are floating about gracefully in the air, there is nothing like this kind of easy breezy entertainment. Blood is spilled, limbs are hacked off, eyeballs are popped, people scream, people fall like leaves, people die, and all these combine to become an endlessly watchable spectacle. Energetic, fast-paced and full of skillful, deadly moves, the cast absolutely excels when it comes to swinging their blades around. A special nod should go to the polished fighting Rick Yune and his costume of hidden knives that magically fire deadly knives on mental command. Lucy Liu, as the head Madame Blossom in the Pink Blossom brothel, commands a group of highly trained prostitutes whose tricks and skills aren't limited for use in the bedroom. Wielding her fan of knives as well as her group of well organised deadly female soldiers, she leads an army good enough to stand on their own, and she too has a chance to show off some maneuvers of her own.
So what is the film actually about? It tells the story of an impending shipment of gold to a Chinese village, and the warriors who wish to sabotage that delivery that would of course make them rich. That's it; which would have been suffice for this kind of light-hearted film, if only it had paid more attention into putting together a lot more action set-pieces. For the scrappy material on offer here, director RZA, who also makes the mistake of casting himself in the lead role, seems to be taking the film far too seriously. He plays the village blacksmith, capable of forging all sorts of deadly weapons. He's in love with a prostitute (Jamie Chung) and the two dream of running away from their lives once they save up enough money to pay off Madame Blossom and get out from under her service. The problem here is that RZA is only capable of showing one expression of complete and utter sternness and needless to say the onscreen "chemistry" he shares with Chung is next to non-existent. Their scenes of "romance" are a joke, and consist only of Chung giving RZA a concerned look, with her eventually removing his shirt and the two of them falling on the bed. You often wish that they don't talk, as that would add more to the embarrassment, but unfortunately they do have a bad habit of opening their mouths and talking which diminish the authenticity of their relationship more.
The less that is seen of RZA and his dreadful character the better, but the film insists on unnecessarily delving into his past and just how he became a blacksmith in China. Yes it's all potentially very sad and touching when we see the young version of RZA escape from slavery, shipwreck and finally find his place in China but dressing him up in a monk outfit, seeing a montage of him learning the ways of Buddhism all summed up in a hazy rush with RZA's same-old unchanging facial movement is taking things a little too far. Of course when a lot of this is happening, there is barely any room for action and due to its poor storytelling the film feels incredibly stale and despite its short length there are moments when it becomes unbearable.
And when it comes to the other warriors, RZA has recruited some prominent names in the world of martial arts; although he could have paid a little more attention into making sure that they could also act. The rest of the cast also has to deal with some awfully written lines that make the already challenged actors sound even worse. There are subplots of treachery, back-stabbing, brotherhood, all of them far too much for the wishy-washy script to fully come to grips with, as it attempt to bite off more than it can chew, trying to bring together all these different strands and trying to make sense of them all when put together. It never succeeds, and a group of uninspired performances don't exactly help when selling the story.
It barely works as throwback homage to the Hong Kong martial arts films - instead it turns into a bit of an insult to the genre that always has intricate planning, details and a heck of a lot more fluidity when it comes to the direction. Take the final scene for example. There is a big one-on-one combat going down, the ultimate fight that should have been designed to knock everyone off their seats. Instead what we get is RZA's very odd decision to suddenly introduce a sequence of split-screens that are more head-spinning and off-putting than anything else. The grand scale moment feels cartoonish to say the least, and despite equipped with the titular "iron fists," RZA fails to end the film with a punch it so desperately needed. All in all it's a wasted opportunity that could have fared better under better, more assured and experienced direction.