Martial arts film fan and musician The RZA (aka Robert Diggs) unleashes his long-awaited big film debut, an homage to classic kung fu and wuxia pian films. Was it worth the wait? Sadly no, thanks to pressure from producers, who ended up making this just a straightforward film with action sequences marred by all too familiar problems.
The story goes as this: The RZA is a blacksmith who forges amazing weaponry for various martial arts clans. When the clans learn of a cache of the Emperor’s gold has arrived in the village, all of them set out to kill each other for the gold. The baddest clan of them all is the Lion Clan, led by Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le). They take over after the death of leader Gold Lion (Chen Kuan-Tai).
There is also a rogue British soldier involved in the action by the name of Jackknife (Russell Crowe). When he is not carousing in the brothels or getting drunk, he gets to business. However, there is more to him than just the gold. Meanwhile, the Lions hire themselves some personal insurance in the forms of Brass Body (Dave Bautista) and Poison Dagger (Daniel Wu).
The Lions’ main target is Zen Yi (Rick Yune), a righteous blade master and rightful heir to the Lion Clan. His father was murdered by Silver Lion, who only wants the power and money to lead the entire martial arts clan. When Zen Yi is injured, the Blacksmith feels remorse and decides to help nurse Zen Yi. When the Blacksmith finds himself targeted by the Lions, he must make a life-changing decision. As we learn about the blacksmith’s past, brothel owner Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu) has plans for the Lions herself. It all comes down in a battle royale.
What started out as a good idea may not have been so good in the final product. While the RZA (who co-wrote the screenplay with HOSTEL director Eli Roth) had a good premise for the story, the fault lies in how the RZA was practically forced to cut what was four hours of footage into only an hour and a half. What is interesting is the symbolism of the title itself. As the RZA plays a blacksmith, his ability to forge weapons is believed that he has some sort of “iron fists”. However, by the third act of the film, the title takes on a more literal meaning, which is somewhat of a plus here.
We understand the basis of the plot, but it would make sense to get more understanding of some of the characters involved, such as brothel owner Madam Blossom, played by Lucy Liu and Lady Silk, played by Jamie Chung. We don’t even get to know much about villains Brass Body and Poison Dagger until the climax but by then, even it is a little too late. We learn about Zen Yi and Jack Knife practically right away and we learn about the Blacksmith as the opening of the third act.
Another disappointing factor comes in terms of the action sequences. When the name Corey Yuen comes up, one can expect some pretty nifty action sequences. Whoever worked on the camera work should feel a little disappointed in themselves. There are too much of a familiar problem at times with extreme close-ups and shaky camera work. However, this comes in a majority of the action scenes. One enjoyable fight scene comes when the Lions take on the Gemini twins, played by Andrew Lin and Grace Huang. The Geminis have not only gunfire but they have these interesting blades that when put together, make up a Yin/Yang symbol. Rick Yune’s Zen Yi has quite an interesting battle sequence when he takes on members of a clan who tie him up and he resorts to having blades shoot out of his armor. That was a pretty interesting device used in this action sequences. However, the climactic battle royal seems a bit of a let down as it looked a bit rushed. Perhaps, this was the issue with the producers wanting to cut the film down to only ninety minutes.
While after this film, many are going to blame the RZA, after learning of the facts during post-production, this reviewer feels that the RZA’s real vision of his homage to classic kung fu and wuxia was somewhat robbed but to pressure from the producers. Once can only hope that the RZA will unleash a director’s cut in the future, showing his true vision of the film. Perhaps then, retractors may have a glimmer of hope in trusting a martial arts film fan like the RZA. This is perhaps worth viewing one time as a rental just to get an idea of what the RZA wanted to perceive in paying homage to martial arts films.