So for his directing debut — he has previously scored “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” and acted in films such as “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” — he has bravely challenged himself to make his own Asian martial arts movie, “The Man With the Iron Fists.”
The movie, while a lot of fun and made to fully maximize the stylized action, is the work of a serious student of the genre rather than a master with a gift for reinvention.
Even those with a cursory knowledge of Chinese “wuxia” and Japanese jidaigeki movies may be able to spot the lifts and references as his Asian and Western stars go at each other in full-tilt combat.
The moments of over-the-top bloodshed and gore are deliberately played for laughs but the main action, overseen by legendary choreographer Corey Yuen, does not mock such movies but rather pays homage to them.
Quentin Tarantino not only lends his name as a presenter of this movie but helped coach RZA in his study of Asian action movies. So each fight scene honors a different movie style ranging from the Shaw Brothers to Ang Lee.
But that spark of originality and bravado one looks for in top-notch Asian action never come across. The filmmaker has dutifully learned a film language and its cultural nuances but he’s still settling in; he hasn’t found a style of his own.
As with many action films, the story is a mere pretext for epic battles. This one (written with horror filmmaker and actor Eli Roth) borrows from the “Dragon Gate” films where warriors and assassins all converge on a single village to battle over imperial gold.
RZA plays Blacksmith, whose metallurgic abilities have both sides seeking his help in making bigger and badder weapons. Curiously, he fashions himself a Buddhist yet still he makes weaponry. Hmmm.
Then again, as someone remarks, “he’s not from around here.”
Seeking revenge for his father’s murder is Rick Yune, a man with many sharp objects, while Russell Crowe’s lone-wolf Englishman is ensconced at the local brothel, biding his time until he can strike at villains.
The traitors are many, lead by Byron Mann and world champion martial artist Cung Le, who call themselves the lion clan. They employ World Wresting Entertainment’s David Bautista, whose body unaccountably turns to indestructible metal when fighting. Then lurking in the shadows is Daniel Wu with his poison dagger.
A third force is represented by Lucy Liu as the brothel’s madam and leader of the Black Widow female warriors. Among her retinue is Jamie Chung as Blacksmith’s love interest.
For an R-rated film, there is a strange shyness about showing any female nudity even in the brothel scenes of warriors and prostitutes grinding away.
There is also an odd flashback to explain how a black man came to a tiny village in 19th-century China. This seems to exist solely to create a role for ’70s action heroine Pam Grier. It certainly serves no other purpose.
Evaluating “Iron Fists” as a critic though is difficult. It’s akin to evaluating a painter trying to paint in the style of Picasso’s Blue Period or a writer imitating Hemingway.
One appreciates the hundreds of hours RZA spent studying martial arts movies out of Asia and the month he spent on the Chinese set of “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” watching the director’s every move.
But “Iron Fists” lacks the intuitive nature of martial arts films generated out of Asia or the reverential satire — maybe you prefer the expression “pastiche” — that Tarantino brought to the Asian sections in his impressive “Kill Bill” films.
At best, “Iron Fists” feels like a day at the office for an Asian action director. It neither stands back to offer commentary about a film genre such as Tarantino accomplished with his films nor does it seek to push the genre into new territory.
In a nutshell, it lacks vision.
In fact, more and more, Asian directors themselves are either pushing action into a more western mode with CGI effects such as Tsui Hark’s 3D “The Flying Swords of the Dragon Inn” or mixing western and eastern approaches in modern-day films such as Johnnie To’s “Vengeance.”
“Iron Fists” remains rooted in an old (albeit still viable) style of moviemaking. Yuen even makes a revealing comment in press notes about his choreography in “Iron Fists.”
“The younger generation,” he says, “will see ‘The Man With the Iron Fists’ as a very new style of film, but it actually is a remake of classic Chinese films. Because many haven’t seen the classic Chinese kung-fu films before, they’re going to see this as a whole new action film.”
But, as he admits, it is not.
If RZA wants to pursue action films, he might consider some sort of hybrid that many Hong Kong and Taiwanese directors are now doing such as in To’s films “Vengeance” or “Exiled,” which embraces a Tarantino-esque, tongue-in-cheek mix of hard acton with bracing dark comedy.
God knows I’m not suggesting RZA copy Tarantino — too many others have already tried that and failed miserably— but rather to figure out what he can bring to this genre that makes it different rather than slavishly the same.
Opens: November 2, 2012 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Universal Pictures and Quentin Tarantino present a Strike Entertainment/Arcade Pictures production
Cast: Russell Crowe, RZA, Lucy Liu, Rick Yune, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, Dave Bautista, Byron Mann, Daniel Wu, Pam Grier, Zhu Zhu
Screenwriters: RZA, Eric Roth
Story by: RZA
Producers: Marc Abraham, Eric Newman, Eli Roth
Executive producers: Thomas Karnowski, Thomas A. Bliss, Kristel Laiblin
Director of photography: Chan Chi Ying
Production designer: Drew Boughton
Martial arts choreography: Corey Yuen
Music: RZA, Howard Drossin
Costume designer: Thomas Chong
Editor: Joe D’Augustine
R rating, 94 minutes