Fixed, immovable objects tend to block the shot during most dialogue exchanges in The Man with the Iron Fists. Columns, buildings, a villain’s Phil Spector mane, Russell Crowe’s gut.
To the masses that see Crowe in anything, this will certainly feel amateurish — especially once they learn Fists is rapper / actor / composer The RZA’s directorial debut. But to those initiated in the shabby Shaw Brothers school of martial arts filmmaking, it’s actually the astute work of a grindhouse acolyte.
Unlike, say, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, dialogue matters little and profound characterization even less. Heroes, villains, feet, fists, blades. There’s your food pyramid for this meal. And that slipshod camerawork? Just recognizable garnish.
Presented by Quentin Tarantino and co-written by Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever), Fists is junk-food satisfaction — full of gore, fury and frenetic wirework. And although not dazzling enough to brand RZA a filmmaker to watch, it transplants his affection for fleshy, fleshed-out code-of-honor stories from song to screen.
Even those seated at the start can’t be entirely sure of what’s going on at all times. But if you know who’s good and who’s bad, you’re set. In 19th-century Japan, Jungle Village is a den of warring, unregulated, animalistic tribes — the last place through which the Emperor would like to transport gold.
But he must, and every bloodthirsty pack is out to intercept it There’s the big-haired duo of Silver Lion and Bronze Lion (Byron Mann and Cung Le), whose fatal betrayal of Gold Lion has Gold Lion’s son, Zen-Yi, the X-Blade (Rick Yune), out for revenge.
There are also hide-wearing Hyenas, a behemoth named Brass Body (former WWE personality and current mixed martial arts fighter David Bautista) who fights Tiger-style and turns his body into metal, and the Black Widows of the Pink Blossom, a tee-hee-hee-named brothel lorded over by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu).
Recruited by all comers for the finest weapons is Thaddeus (RZA), a freed slave turned blacksmith stuffing his mattress to run away with Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), his girlfriend and one of Madam’s best girls.
But playing both sides against the middle proves deadly. And after a grisly accident, Thaddeus recuperates and teams with both Zen-Yi and Jack Knife (Crowe), a swarthy, opium-addicted British soldier often found fondling four girls at once. Together, they must secure the gold before the Emperor blows Jungle Village and its innocent denizens to hell with a Gatling gun and “more bullets than China has rice.”
Fists is to martial arts as Moulin Rouge! was to pop balladry — a carefully choreographed, lovingly cheeky pastiche that never teeters into parody. Cantonese spare ribs crack with wet and crunchy sound effects as human ribs. And Cory Yuen (The Transporter) concocts a handful of wowing martial arts sequences that rip the Pink Blossom to shreds — namely any fight involving Yune, as well as a titanic triptych between RZA and Bautista, Liu and Le, and Yune and Mann in the finish.
But thank goodness for Mann’s preening and expert hamming from Crowe, who became pals with RZA while filming The Next Three Days. Otherwise, Fists would grow fatally self-serious amidst RZA’s intractable glowering and affectless narration.
Equal parts Jack Burton and Richard Burton, Crowe bellows and bloviates through the entire movie — stopping only to operate a knife-gun combo that quickly carves like turkeys fellows like Crazy Hippo. Not since before he was a star — in the long-ago, underrated Virtuosity — has Crowe cut loose like this, and watching an Oscar winner deliver a speech tailor-made for Bruce Campbell gives Fists a giddy kick.
As adrenaline-spiking martial arts movies go, Fists lags behind more recent examples as Kung-Fu Hustle, 13 Assassins and The Raid: Redemption. Plus, it lacks the goofy genes to go all out with supernatural comedy a la Big Trouble in Little China. But Fists feels flung forth straight from RZA’s junior-high notebook — wild arterial-spray doodles and all — and carries its own badass conviction and charm.