Starring RZA, Russell Crowe. Written by Eli Roth, RZA. Directed by RZA. 18A. 95 min.
Set against a deliberately anachronistic Chinese feudal backdrop and powered by present-tense hip-hop beats, The Man With the Iron Fists is like a CAT scan of one of RZA’s daydreams. For his directorial debut, the Wu-Tang mastermind has classic kung-fu movies on the brain, but he’s also pondering steam-punk, pro wrestling, and ’70s blaxploitation, all of which figure into the film’s rabid mongrel aesthetic.
The title refers to the rebirth of RZA’s character as an iron-fisted avenger after he’s literally disarmed by his foes. But the rapper-producer is a surprisingly self-effacing presence in his own dream production. He’s easily outshone by special guest star Russell Crowe, who plays a quasi-British officer enjoying a brothelcentric tour of Jungle Village. Surely, he’s the only Oscar winner to ever portray a character named Mr. Knife. (He makes good on his moniker by disembowelling his foes.) There’s also a striking role for WWE star David Bautista as a thug dubbed Brass Body. His name isn’t a metaphor: For reasons never adequately explained, his skin bronzes on contact and makes him impervious to any and all blows.
The plot is basically just a series of skirmishes between various parties interested in a hijacked shipment of gold, and the underlying themes of honour and vengeance are treated with a sort of affectionate impatience. Wearing its thriftiness proudly on its hand-me down sleeves, The Man With the Iron Fists is a low-stakes proposition for all involved, but it offers a decent return on its low investment. The cheap thrills pay off.