Film review: The Man with the Iron Fists (18)

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MOST of what happens in RZA’s hip-hop martial arts movie sounds like the fever dream of an under-medicated fanboy.

The Man With The Iron Fists (18)

Director: RZA

Running time: 96 minutes

* *

A chaotic Oriental bloodbath with a stone-faced rapper for a hero, a hammy turn by a meaty Russell Crowe and the barest of plots about a fortune in gold that everyone wants to get their hands on.

Previously best known as founder and producer of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA has been gradually edging into film, composing for pictures such as Kill Bill, then appearing in supporting roles in movies such as American Gangster. In Man With The Iron Fists he finally steps up as writer, director and star of a story about a blacksmith in a small village, who is kept busy making fiendish weapons for warring locals who have split into an array of clans. My favourites are the ­Lions, led by Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le), who have luxuriant manes, the like of which would not be seen until Van Halen released their first record in China.

The script, co-written with Eli Roth (responsible for the tortuously violent Hostel) throws in one set-up and quirky character after another. The most notable import in a curiously multicultural 19th-century China is Russell Crowe as a British opium addict called Jack Knife. This is Crowe at his most delighted and twinkly, even when he has to take on an adversary called Crazy Hippo. Hippos are known to be dangerous animals. Then again, so is Crowe if you don’t let him read his poetry, or if there’s a phone to hand.

In a power struggle that’s sometimes hard to watch and often hard to care about, bodies are gutted, skulls are bashed and there’s some Crouching Tiger-style running up walls. The fight director is Corey Yuen, a legend in 1970s martial arts cinema and on Jason Statham’s Transporter and The Expendables.

It’s obviously an affectionate tribute to the era of the Shaw Brothers’ chopsocky, but RZA does the film few favours by casting himself in the lead. He’s not deadpan, just lifeless when intoning anachronistic profanities such as “These motherf***ers had a Gatling gun and more bullets than China has rice”. Iron fists, he may have; personality, he does not – and he’s easily overshadowed by Crowe, but also Lucy Liu doing yet another of her dragon lady turns as the madam of a lethal brothel, a mercenary called Brass Body (wrestler David Bautista) who can transform his body into metal, and Zen Yi (Rick Yune) dressed as a leather porcupine.

Rumoured to have been hacked down from a four-hour version, The Man With The Iron Fists proves RZA has plenty of industry chums prepared to lend a hand, but also that he lacks any real inspiration of his own – unless you count marrying martial arts to a hip-hop soundtrack. Rather than excitement, the most convincing feeling evoked here is déjà vu. «

On general release from Friday