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The Scarlet & Black

Films rule everything around Wu-Tang Clan member

By Lee Purvey

It becomes nearly impossible to separate “The Man with the Iron Fists,” the film, from the association of its star, writer and director, Robert Diggs. This is the directorial debut for Diggs who, under the name “RZA,” achieved popularity and widespread acclaim in the early 90s as a rapper in and the primary producer for the influential New York hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan, and, rather unsurprisingly, promotion of the project never departed from the shadow of this formidable musical legacy. From the opening credits, in which a fight sequence runs over a very familiar Wu-Tang track, the film is rife with self-aware—typically musical—cues, winking chummily at the viewer: “Pretty cool, huh?”

The challenge, therefore, in evaluating “Iron Fists,” is in separating it from the layers of pop culture and promotional hype that surrounded its release—essentially, resisting this immediate, almost involuntary, “Pretty cool” reaction and trying to see the project for what it ultimately actually is: a film.

The movie—set in a fantastical, linguistically Anglicized 19th century China—centers around a blacksmith (Diggs, alternately credited as “Blacksmith” and “The Man with the Iron Fists”), living in a rural community known as “Jungle Village.” A chaotic den of lawless criminality and hedonistic excess—a familiar setting lifted from the Western—Jungle Village is home to a number of warring factions who vie for control of the community.

A reluctant beneficiary of the constant demand for arms in this violent world, Blacksmith dreams of escaping Jungle Village with his lover Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute at the Pink Blossom, a brothel run by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu).
These plans are thwarted, however, when the leader of the Lion Clan—each clan being named and costumed after a different animal, in a fashion rather disturbingly reminiscent of the contemporary “furry” subculture—is murdered, setting off a bloody power struggle over a shipment of gold the Chinese Emperor had left in the Clan’s safekeeping. In the ensuing action features an enthusiastic procession stomachs sliced open, bodies crushed in giant churning gears, eyeballs punched out of faces, and heads kicked off torsos—all accompanied by Monty Python-esque swathes of spurting blood.

The film is “presented” by Quentin Tarantino—with whom Diggs previously collaborated, as the composer for “Kill Bill: Volume 1”—and, at its best, “Iron Fists” does the same thing for old school kung fu that Tarantino’s “Death Proof” did for the “grindhouse” cinema of the 1970s. One idiotic, delightful sequence features a stripped down version of Kanye West’s soundtrack cut “White Dress,” playing as the Pink Blossom’s filles de joie giggle and frolic in baths of rose petals. Occasional dialogic homages—“The Gemini Pose!”—ring hilariously true.

More often than not, however, the Hollywood action-adventure serves as a more fitting analogue than the tongue-in-cheek genre send-up. An extended flashback explaining Blacksmith’s formative years as a slave and his subsequent escape to a Buddhist monastery is far less evocative of the similar sequence Uma Thurman’s character experiences in “Kill Bill: Volume 2” than it is of the ‘Road of Trials’ interludes one might find halfway through any superhero movie cranked off the Hollywood assembly line in the last decade. While Diggs is certainly no hack at staging a martial arts sequence, his fight scenes lack the humor and absurdity of the “Kill Bill” series or even Robert Rodriguez’s “Mexico Trilogy,” and as a result they grow repetitive and uninteresting after the second or third time through.

A bland dramatic performance from Diggs—who has previously demonstrated a sure hand for comedy in self-caricaturing turns in “Californication” and “Coffee and Cigarettes”—does little to help.
Alternately branded as a “Wu-Tang movie” and a campy B-movie homage, “The Man with the Iron Fists” ultimately settles for a safer, middle-of-the-road trajectory. Anyone who has listened to a Wu-Tang album or watched an interview with Diggs can hardly doubt the first-time director’s enthusiasm for kung fu cinema. Yet, as much fun as the musician-turned-director undoubtedly had making completing this project, one can’t help but ask—shouldn’t watching this movie be fun, too?

“The Man with the Iron Fists” will be screening Friday, Sept. 13, in Harris Cinema.

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