The Man with the Iron Fists is a solid little martial arts movie. It plays things relatively straight. It isn’t some pastiche like Tarantino’s Kill Bill. It isn’t some ironic parody masquerading as homage. It isn’t classy like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, trying to play it up for the Oscar bait crowd. In almost every way it plays exactly like your typical 70s Shaw Brothers martial arts movie, just with some computer assistance with some of the effects.
For that I dig it. The action’s decently choreographed and it’s filmed in a legible style for the most part. The significant characters get the cool gimmick which makes them interesting to watch. There’s just one thing that really nags me about the movie:
The music’s pretty solid stuff taken on its own. From what I could tell it was a mix of Wu Tang Clan remixes and the sort of instrumentals you expect from the movies RZA’s been involved with. Or, if you wanna put it in otaku terms, it’s basically a westernized Samurai Champloo.
And that’s a good place to start as far as what threw me off with this movie. Champloo may be a samurai drama, but you have this modern urban anachronisms tossed into the mix as well. Mugen’s fighting style resembles breakdancing more than it does any sort of traditional sword style. There’s an entire episode devoted to tagging buildings with graffiti. There’s a deliberate attempt to blend the two aesthetics, and it creates something unique in the process.
The Man with the Iron Fists is devoid of that sort of thing. The movie takes place in 1800s China. It adopts the aesthetic of movies intended to take place in that era. While things are pretty outlandish, they’re all era-appropriate based on this sort of fiction. You expect female warriors to be able to wrap people up in cloth strong as steel. You expect wire fu and all that shit. Russel Crowe’s gunblade might seem like a modern conceit due to the likes of Final Fantasy, but really, it’s just a big bowie knife that happens to have a six-shooter built into it. It feels right for the era and the genre, rather than something modern thrust into the past.
The only bit that feels out-of-place is the music. It isn’t what you expect from a martial arts movie. Yeah, these guys have sampled stuff from old martial arts movies, but the end result is decidedly modern. When the only modern aspect of the movie is the score, it makes everything else feel a bit off. It isn’t a deal breaker or anything, it just caught my attention more than it should have.
Other than that, the movie’s solid. The plot’s pretty generic: Governor has a gold shipment stolen, wants it back, peeps vie to steal it or return it, revenge is had, etc etc. Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu get to ham it up quite a bit, which helps balance out the more dry and humorless leads. The best fight, surprisingly enough, happens pretty early in the movie. The shipment is being guarded by a husband and wife pair called The Gemini Killers, and their fighting style looks more like swing dancing or pairs figure skating than anything else. It’s pretty awesome stuff. Shame those two only get that one action scene.
And there’s gore. Blood and guts and Lucy Liu kicking a dude’s head off and all sorts of other cool moments. One of the villains is pretty reminiscent of the rock dude from Ninja Scroll. The way he finally gets defeated might even be a wink to that scene if I read a certain visual clue right. Hell, the main villain also dies buried in gold (just not molten gold) (spoiler). Would be surprised if these guys were playing off of that movie as much as they were old school live action stuff.
Yeah, this was fun stuff. The bit with the music wasn’t even really bad, it just happened to be something I wanted to address. Not quite up there with the best stuff I’ve seen so far this year (The Raid, Haywire, Argo, Looper, Dredd), but definitely cool.