The Man with the Iron Fists arrives nine years after Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill and another decade after Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), when RZA first made his bones as "the Abbot" of Wu-Tang Clan. Of late, he's more notorious for productivity than the meticulousness of his actual work, and the film doesn't break that tradition. After producing a slew of brilliant debut albums for the extended Wu empire, each steeped in its own version of chop-socky mythology, RZA became a home-video distributor, menswear exec, solo MC, philanthropist, movie star, medicine man, and finally, sought his own kung-fu education. In The Man with the Iron Fists, he stars, doe-eyed as ever, as a beleaguered blacksmith who's a long, long way from home, quietly making weapons for both sides of a vicious intra-clan power struggle in a place known as Jungle Village.
"Every dog has his night," Blacksmith intones in voiceover, saving up gold pieces one sack at a time until he can escape with his girlfriend (Jamie Chung) from the gauzy brothel where she works under Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). Just as the place comes under the thumb of the nefarious, renegade Bronze and Silver Lions (Cung Le and Byron Mann, respectively), a paunchy Englishman named Jackknife (Russell Crowe, hanging loose like never before seen) swaggers into town, accompanied by Morricone-style music on the soundtrack, to sample the merchandise. Drafted by the Lions to make poison darts, Blacksmith soon finds himself caught up in the turf war, but teams up with Jack after the Lions, abetted by a huge villain made out of brass, kidnap his girlfriend and slice off his arms.
The movie's emotional gravitas comes from Blacksmith's rediscovery of self, with a backstory (told between Bogart-worthy cigarillo puffs) that boomerangs from suffering racism in the South, being shipwrecked, and finally being absorbed into Zen Buddhism, all the way to somehow forging for himself a new pair of iron fists. The script, co-written by Eli Roth, takes itself just seriously enough to get from one ludicrous set piece to another, and paints the curious picture of a RZA more interested in hammy intra-clan warfare than bringing his own supposed spiritual journey to the masses. At its most vehement, The Man with the Iron Fists is more cinematic for the ear than the eye: RZA cooks up a strong brew of clanging metals, crackling flames, and rivers of CGI blood that gush from sword slices courtesy of Evil Dead F/X maestro Greg Nicotero.
The wire-fu scenes are beautifully choreographed, but pretty crudely edited; despite its gourmet neo-grindhouse trappings, the film won't bring the heat like you've never seen before. But as with everything else in RZA's non-producing career, even if not outright spectacular, the film serves up spectacle in bulk quantity. Make that stoner-friendly bulk quantity. The funniest (and truest) bits are the tweaks and flourishes any Golden Harvest disciple will pick out immediately: deliberately fake-y beards and eyebrows, Jess Franco-worthy zooms, and scads of cornball, meticulously dubbed-sounding dialogue. But does RZA take it seriously? You bet your life, and that deliriously stone-faced dedication—even, when it seems, to its own bottomless silliness—lodges The Man with the Iron Fists firmly between a kōan and a limerick.