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The Man With the Iron Fists

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'Iron Fists' lands a few blows
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

When I was a much younger man, operating on the highly mistaken supposition that all the time in the world was mine to fritter away as I pleased, my cronies and I often spent large chunks of our leisure opportunities taking in triple-features of martial arts movies. Whether in the slums of Paterson where I then lived, or the fleshpots of New York City's Times Square that my friends and I frequented with rather more frequency than might have been good for our healths, the routine was the same, and quite a bit different from the neurotic "I have to see this from the opening credits" requirement articulated by Alvy Singer in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall."  After the imbibing of motley inebriating agents, we would roll into the theater any old time and just settle in. The story line of the martial arts film would become comprehensible in a little while, if at all, and if it didn't, well, there were many martial arts action scenes to be enjoyed. The other members of the audience had a similarly cavalier attitude toward what some cinephiles see as an almost church-like undertaking. Some would walk in carrying fully turned-up boom boxes, which they would keep on throughout the screened entertainment. (And you thought texting in theaters was a problem.) None of these practices or circumstances diminished the viewing experience. In some respects, they enhanced it.

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All this is by way of an elaborate rationalization as to why I am deigning to review the new martial arts movie "The Man With the Iron Fists," despite the fact that I got to the screening fifteen minutes late. (As a resident of New York City, traveling from one borough to another is a bit problematic at the current moment.) The debut feature from the musician known as RZA, whose love of martial arts movies was an integral part of his artistic project from his beginnings with the hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan (whose name itself was derived from ... you'll never guess ... a martial arts movie), was neither diminished nor enhanced for me on account of my missing certain details of its plot. 

The plot has groups of warriors competing for some gold treasure in a village whose denizens also include a crafty blacksmith (played by RZA himself) and a craftier brothel madam (Lucy Liu). Sneaking into town to stir up some trouble of his own ("You're business; this is pleasure" he intones to a trio of concubines he's got in bondage as he prepares to depart from them, and do some killing; like many of his other pronouncements in the movie, this makes absolutely no sense) is a British official who calls himself Jack Knife, played by a very puffy Russell Crowe, who appears to be enjoying something like a busman's holiday. There are any number of rollicking battle scenes that combine gravity-defying wire work and near-extreme gore effects. There's a villain named Brass Body, because he can actually make his body turn into brass as you're hitting it. There's narration, provided by RZA, which fills in plot points with notes such as "Now these motherf---ers had a Gatling gun," using this salty language despite the fact that the movie is set in something resembling the 19th century.

In other words, this is a genre mash-up meta-movie, but it's one that often plays, at least a little, like an authentic martial arts picture. It's actually kind of nice to see this kind of homage done without over-intellectualizing things. This isn't to say that "The Man With the Iron Fists" is a dumb movie. No, scratch that. Actually, it is a dumb movie. It's just relatively smart about being dumb. But not that smart about it either.

RZA has some interesting, if not outright good, ideas of how to make exciting cinematic spectacle, but his means often appear to be lacking. He's also, despite his sleepy-eyed charisma, a terrible actor, particularly when his blacksmith morphs into the film's title character. Mickey Spillane wasn't particularly good at playing Mike Hammer; RZA, you don't have to do everything, you know?

And he hedges his bets rather weirdly. While festooning the screen with all manner of limb severing and blood-gushing neck wounds, he keeps the brothel scenes relatively chaste, as if that's gonna spare the movie an R rating. Now don't get me wrong: I understand there are other outlets for people who want to see nude Asian women in multiple, but the strategy just strikes me as odd. That being the case, I can see "The Man With the Iron Fists" being a fairly satisfying slab of cinematic mayhem, particularly if seen in under conditions like the ones I describe from my younger days. This viewing circumstance involved, for reasons you should well be able to infer, over $50 in cab fare. I'm not sure I would devote that to the movie were there not a professional obligation involved. Just saying.

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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