The Man with the Iron Fists probably comes as close as possible to replicating one of the old-school Chinese kung-fu movies that director Robert Diggs loved as a kid. Diggs grew up to become the RZA, leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, the celebrated rap collective, whose name was itself derived from one of those old chop-socky flicks. He also became an actor, and has now directed his first film, scripted in collaboration with his pal Eli Roth, creator of the Hostel movies, among many other genre delights. The resulting picture, shot in China, is packed with bloody action and magical implausibilities—which is to say, it drips authenticity.
RZA plays a blacksmith in a shabby Chinese village. This requires some explanation, and in a flashback we learn that he's actually a freed slave who set out from the States aboard a ship (called the Destiny) that foundered off the Chinese coast. He was discovered on the shore by a group of Buddhist monks, who took him in and schooled him in the ways of Chi, a system of key body points that will later prove useful.
Now established as a blacksmith, he crafts formidable weapons for local bad guys in order to save up enough money to liberate his girlfriend, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), from her demeaning labors as a prostitute in the local Pink Blossom bordello, which is run by the beautiful and crafty Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu).
Mad complications accumulate. A shipment of government gold that's due to pass through the village draws the interest of various outlaw gangs, among them the cannibalistic Wolf Clan, whose members traipse about with the heads of dead wolves affixed to their noggins, and an interloping group called the Lion Clan, led by one Silver Lion (Byron Mann). Opposing them is a virtuous warrior named Zen Yi (Rick Yune) and a "vacationing" Brit called Jack Knife ("You can call me Jack"), who's played by Russell Crowe.
This also requires some explanation. Jack is a mercenary who wandered into China and stayed. His weapon of choice is a revolver with whirling knives attached. He spouts poetry; sometimes disguises himself in a coolie hat (you really have to see Russell Crowe in a coolie hat); and, as we witness in a bordello scene, boasts unexpected skills both cunnilingual and dildo-related. (You really have to see this, too.)
This narrative foundation undergirds the movie's main draw, which is way-over-the-top action—flying chunks of flesh, endless geysers of blood, and much high-flying wire work. Casual viewers may be put off by close-ups of a man's arms being hacked down to stumps, but kung-fu adepts will surely be warmed by the classical familiarity of it all (and by the depredations inflicted by Brass Body, a towering brute, played by pro wrestler David Bautista, who can turn himself into metal whenever an assault impends).
The movie isn't much more than a lovingly done tribute to the kung-fu form—you can imagine the spirits of the Shaw brothers and other Hong Kong chop-socky specialists hovering appreciatively over the proceedings. And while RZA isn't really a lively enough actor to fully animate his lead character, Crowe and Liu and the amusingly bouffant-haired Byron Mann take up a lot of slack. In any event, the target audience for this film, tipped off by the trailer, will know who they are.