The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)
"On the hunt for a fabled treasure of gold, a band of warriors, assassins, and a rogue British soldier descend upon a village in feudal China, where a humble blacksmith looks to defend himself and his fellow villagers."
Usually, you watch a movie based off of a simple premise that draws you in, and normally for most people that would be a genre that matches their mood. When this film originally hit theaters, I was pretty stoked because it had been a while since I had seen a good kung fu flick and this looked like it should be a pretty good kung fu flick. I never got around to watching it in theaters, however, as almost every reliable movie-opinion friend I had that happened to have seen it elaborated to me that quite frankly it wasn't very good. Well, to quote the Dude , "That's like, your opinion man." You came here to find out my opinion though, and by the pillars of Kung Fu you are gonna get it!
We have some good things that I am very excited to talk about here, and then we have some that aren't so good. I'm so excited, in fact, that we are going to skip over the normal plot-first pattern of these things and go straight to why I'm so excited - the costumes! After having watched so many normal-days modern flicks lately, attire on movies has been getting pretty bland - so you can imagine the charge go through my heart with this one. Every major character has their own costume, unique to them and tying into their very character, to the extent of even having personal weapons. If a person is looking for a colorful kung fu experience, this is certainly it.
The main character - the blacksmith (RZA)- spends much of the movie looking very "Assassin's Creed" with his leather hooded coat, being incredibly sneaky when there doesn't seem to be any reason for him to be such. Each other character who happens to be a "big player" (any of the fighters) all have their own style, and even the sub-characters from each clan happen to have their own theme going on (such as the Hyena clan's almost burglar-esque scavenger attire). Zen Yi (Rick Yune) has a costume that even happens to be a weapon - a sleek looking leather armor that happens to have expanding spikes on almost all faces. Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) is a big western influence, looking very much like a cowboy who waded into Chinatown with his strange knife-gun combo (the blade of which rotates like a drill).
Even the sets are done wonderfully - filmed straight in China. Colorful where expected, with a hefty setting of indoor environments (but not lacking on the somewhat bleak looking old chinese kung fu streets). The whore house, specifically, looks amazing as a set with multiple floors full of color and cloth tapestries and even indoor cherry blossom trees. The set is almost more appeasing to the eye than all the lovely women being employed.
That being said, lets get to the plot, shall we? Each character has a subplot associated with it, with the primary plotline focusing on the Emperor's gold shipment that the leader of the Lion clan (Gold Lion) promises to protect. The trouble starts when his own troops (namely Silver and Bronze Lion) decide they want the gold and have him assassinated while in a skirmish with the Hyena clan. A lot of the other plots dance around this - Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu) for example plans on using said gold to gain power over the others. The blacksmith, during all of this, is serving as our narrator as well as a character whose plot is actually a love story. It's a very big mix of events, with revenge and love, greed and honor all thrown in as though the RZA was taking everything he loved about kung fu and mashing it into one.
Although none of these plots are super elaborate (which might bother many), the fact that so many exist in here means that there is a multitude of experiences to be had, although they also end up feeling a little weak because of it. A bit of the same actually happens as far as the characters go - the only one who is entirely fleshed out in feeling happens to be the blacksmith (no doubt thanks to his backstory being told with flashbacks). Granted, the characters are unique enough that you get a good feel for some of them without the backstory, possibly even growing attached to some of them during the length of their screen time, but certainly I wouldn't go as far as to say the characters drive the plot. That being said, we do get a decent contemplative moment or two regarding the depth of ones character thanks to the blacksmith - even if some will only take it at it's face value.
The soundtrack here seems to be a strange mix of rap and hip-hop at first, but ends up working incredibly well with the movie as a whole. Although I didn't walk away humming any of it, it's more of a case that the action focused my brain elsewhere and the music did a phenomenal job of enhancing the action and mood shown on screen. It's hard to not understate the effect it has on some of the scenes, at times making it feel like a music video while other times fading into the background as a scene enhancer. Clangs, bangs, and kicks sound as one would expect in a kung fu flick, which certainly isn't bad in any way, and a good portion of the lines are delivered well enough that I didn't come off feeling the actors were doing a terrible job.
On that subject though, of all the parts of this movie, the way it is shot is the main double edged sword. The flow isn't necessarily bad, and you can certainly see where some of the influences of the RZA bleed through, but at times scenes just seem pointless (most of Jack Knife's earlier whore-house scenes for example) and break up the action. The fights can be chaotic and stylized all at once, but sometimes goes a bit overboard with the blood effects (as far as I could tell most of which are done digitally) that could have been handled a little different. Not to say that kung fu isn't known for it's over the top wire-fu and crazy 1200 psi blood squirts, but with all the unique aspects of the movie and different fighting styles being used, it seems overkill at a few of the more violent parts. Outside of that, the angles and camerawork related to the scenes were great, giving it a real good vibe of classic kung fu as well as taking part in some modern pleasures like a brief slow motion strike-down and pose that just bleeds style.
Truth be told, I enjoyed my time spent watching this movie. It was nothing groundbreaking by any means, but as far as a kung fu movie goes it gave me exactly what I wanted. A wide cast of characters with elaborate and personalized costumes all with their own breed of fighting style and unique weapons, taking part in some elaborate or simple fight scenes with classical chinese fantasy-style powers (turning one's body to brass for example) is exactly what I expected out of this movie, and it certainly gave it to me. Plot lines were so abundant that they became a bit watered down in feel, but at the same time they never felt as though they weren't necessary for the fun of the movie (unlike some of the scenes). For his directorial debut, I'd have to say the RZA did pretty good, although as a character I still gotta say I enjoyed him more in Afro Samurai .