Double Exposure’s resident Wu-Tang scholar Ethan Edwards takes an in-depth look at the RZA’s directorial debut.
The Man With the Iron Fists, the new movie written and directed by the RZA, is exactly what one would expect it to be. The bizarre blend of kung fu, Hip Hop, and ultra-violent action is certainly entertaining, arresting, and unique, even if all the disparate elements are shamelessly sampled. Unfortunately, the script is seriously lacking, as well as many of the performances, so that you can never really tell where the plot is going, nor do you care. However, because nothing like it exists, it may very well become a cult movie for fans of its influences. The Man with the Iron Fists is not a good movie, but it is most definitely a work of the RZA.
The RZA is most famous for creating the kung fu-inspired Hip Hop group, the Wu-Tang Clan, and then leading them to stardom in the early 90’s. The group took hard-core lyrics and beats of the New York scene and incorporated references to kung fu movies into their lyrics while RZA added audio samples from the movies directly to the music. As a Hip Hop producer, the RZA produced his music by literally taking audio samples, mostly 60’s and 70’s jazz and soul, and repurposing them into a new work. As an example, on the track “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” the drum loop is carefully lifted from an Otis Redding recording while some strings from yet another source vary things up. The RZA’s innovation was to add style to track and the whole album by opening with two dialogue clips, one from Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang then another piece from The Five Deadly Venoms.
However, by the RZA’s account, the Wu-Tang Clan took more than just samples from kung fu. The RZA and the rest of the group grew up on the Shaw Brothers films of the 1970’s. The versions they watched were all dubbed, and the legacy of cheesy dialogue with over-the-top action shows itself in their work. That many members took their names from these films explains such potentially confusing appellations as Ghostface Killah, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Masta Killa. The RZA takes even more than just these raw cultural elements: he brought spiritual inspiration from the canon of Shaw Brothers movies to Wu-Tang. He explained in his auto-biography, The Dao of the Wu, that movies such as The Five Deadly Venoms, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin taught the group how to train, how to overcome odds, and how to be a family. These movies were the source of the group, and the personal inspiration for all of the RZA’s future endeavors.
The Man with the Iron Fists is not a pure homage to these films, and it is not a kung fu movie. The influence of the western genre, the fantastical characters, and the anachronistic presence of contemporary culture mix it into something else. Even the action is not pure martial arts, but instead a combination of kung fu and ultra-violent slow motion style of today’s cinema characterized by directors like Zack Synder. The film is a combination of all its generic sources; it stands to kung-fu films as Hip Hop does to its samples. In a style certainly reminiscent of the film’s producer, Quentin Tarantino, the RZA has taken all his favorite things and put them together into a single film.
However, just like in the RZA’s other creations, kung fu films are the backbone which hold all the other elements together. The movie’s haphazard construction, its focus on form and style over character and dialogue actually comes directly from the RZA’s original experience of those dubbed Shaw Brothers movies. The cheesy lines delivered through poor acting which can make the movie seem so ridiculous actually reminds one of the dubbed dialogue which its director grew up on. Even the title of the movie itself can sound badly translated, but this adds to its charm, the impression that is comes ultimately from the world of kung fu. The whole premise of the plot, clans named after animals fighting in a place called Jungle Village, makes sense only in these kung fu movies, disregarding attempts at historical accuracy. In the final showdown of the movie between the RZA’s character, called the Blacksmith, and a man whose body turns into brass when pierced, the Blacksmith remarks with surprise after being hit that his opponent is using Tiger-style, something never mentioned in the preceding 80 minutes. Yet it makes sense, simply because of the world in which the movie exists, and the moment actually prompted laughs for how characteristic it was of the RZA’s style. The movie does not take itself over-seriously, and many of the deliberately comic moments work as an acknowledgement of its own absurdity.
With Wu-Tang tracks, soul records create the melodies and the excerpts from movies give it flair. The Man with the Iron Fists draws from these same sources in interesting ways, and the movie works even non-musically like a Wu-Tang record. The soundtrack features a lot of soul musically, but part of the sensibility of the film also derives from the exploitation films tied in with the music from the 70’s, such as Shaft or Superfly. Russell Crowe’s character in particular resembles the iconic personalities of this genre, and the setting of the bulk of the action in a brothel doesn’t hurt the comparison. Kung fu is of course sampled even more extensively. One fight scene is nearly a direct lift of Bruce Lee’s mirror showdown in Enter the Dragon, and these references and samples can be found throughout. The movie also employs little audio clips already used in Wu-Tang music, bringing the samples used in music back into cinema. One of RZA’s first productions, “Shame on a Nigga”, begins with the sounds of a generic fight from a kung fu film The movie begins, before any introduction of character or setting, with these same sounds as an actual fight plays out on the screen, while the soundtrack fades into the song for the credit sequence. There is also a notable point also where a prominent Wu-Tang sample, a sound cue from a movie, is repurposed to once again be a sound effect, independent of any music. The RZA has constructed the movie in the same way that he produced the Wu-Tang sound.
However, he has clearly endowed this work, his first venture into cinema separate from music, with some even greater personal importance. The film’s indulgence allows the RZA to tell his own story, his personal cinephilic narrative. When the movie transitions into the third act, it offers an explanation for why the Blacksmith, an American black man, is in 19th-century China (a move which admittedly was a disappointment for me since I’d have preferred to let absurdity stand). His past of suffering under slavery is shot in black and white except for the blood and fire, yet once he ends up shipwrecked in a Buddhist monastery, cinematographer Chi Ying Chan fades back into color. The climax of his enlightenment comes when he devotes himself to becoming a monk and shaves his own head, directly referencing the scene where Gordon Liu does the same thing in The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter. The RZA then goes before his master to learn, and the master is played by none other than Gordon Liu, the man whom the RZA himself had just been imitating, and has been imitating all his life.
The Man with the Iron Fists is more interesting as a work of Hip Hop production applied to film than it is in terms of cinematic quality. Yet no matter whether or not it succeeds as a whole, its combination of elements show that it is undeniably the work of its author. And although the RZA is not a particularly good actor or writer, he is an undeniably compelling DJ. It is the sheer thrill of combination which gives the film its life and leaves one wondering whether anyone else could have made it.