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'The Man with the Iron Fists' review: Watchable, but messy

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Released on Tuesday, Dec 4 2012

Director: RZA; Screenwriters: RZA, Eli Roth; Starring: RZA, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Jamie Chung; Running time: 96 mins; Certificate: 18


Appealing supporting turns from Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu can't salvage this shoddily structured and messily executed homage to the martial arts movie genre. It's not an excruciating experience, thanks to flashes of visual invention and a largely fun tone, but leaves you wondering just what happened to writer-director-star RZA's original vision.

The Man with the Iron Fists proudly announces itself as a 'Quentin Tarantino Presents' enterprise at the beginning and his influence is instantly evident. The deliberately shaky title captions, grainy film stock and knowingly overly-stylised action sequence that kicks off the movie adopt a similar strategy to the auteur's Grindhouse venture from a few years ago. Yet you can still parody bad filmmaking and emerge with a cohesive and winning film - unlike this effort.

The story revolves around a group of bad guys hunting for gold and incurring the wrath of various individuals like a bland blacksmith (RZA), the son of a murdered leader (Rick Yune), kinky British soldier Jack Knife (Crowe) and brothel owner Madam Blossom (Liu). They unite, with a distinct lack of camaraderie, to tackle the dark forces - including a mercenary whose body turns to metal when struck.

Russell Crowe stars in RZA's directorial debut 'The Man with the Iron Fists'.
The plot development competes with the editing for the most haphazard component of the movie.

Until the final third of the movie there is no clearly defined lead character, with the script doing an awful job of juggling the various protagonists. Some resurface so long after their previous appearance that you assume they had died.

It's often hard to detect just who has been gorily slain due to the frenzied and incoherent direction that scuppers several fight scenes. Yet on other occasions, the camerawork is slick and aesthetically exhilarating. This causes the film to feel like an uneasy composite of different directors and editors, hastily mashed together.

Fortunately, Crowe and Liu excel as the womanising maverick and seductive whorehouse boss, with their electrifying first encounter a distinct highlight of the movie. Both have fun without treating the source material with contempt and the camerawork notably perks up when Crowe is on screen. It's as if the lenses are in awe of his star persona - and literally revolve around his figure on occasion.

While the actors mostly acquit themselves well, the special effects team appears to have resorted to MS Paint at various stages. You can argue that the OTT fighting manoeuvres and slow-mo are an attempt to parody the visual nature of the genre's heyday, but the woeful CGI is awfully incongruous and distracting at times. It's not fit for a TV movie let alone a big-screen wide release. Nor is the baffling decision to introduce a split-screen form during the movie's latter stages, which feels as if it was a last minute afterthought.

The Man with the Iron Fists has enough entertaining interludes and spark from the actors to ensure that viewing is not a painful process. Yet the lack of finesse and consistency in both the technical aspects and the script's structure prove to be insurmountable obstacles that even an iron fist can't smash through.

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