The unions of hip-hop and film have often been shotgun marriages dictated more by commerce and convenience than any overarching artistic chemistry. But not in RZA’s case. From the first track of Wu-Tang Clan’s seminal 1993 album debut, the frontman/producer/mastermind has had his mind on the big screen. He’s learned the film trade in steps, first as a composer for cult films like Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, then as a charismatic character actor, and now as co-writer, director, and star of The Man With The Iron Fists, his passion project and labor of love. (Granted, he had help from like-minded souls Quentin Tarantino—credited as “presenter”—and co-writer Eli Roth. They’re among the only folks in show business who might know more about B-movies than RZA.)
Leading a sprawling international cast, RZA plays an enigmatic blacksmith who bides his time making weapons for the various clans of a village so savage and bloody, they react with mere amused laughter when a stranger played by Russell Crowe publicly eviscerates a corpulent fellow nicknamed “Crazy Hippo.” When a duplicitous lieutenant slaughters the head of a powerful sect, it sets off a vicious battle for power and gold among the village’s warring clans, and it threatens to destroy the town.
No matter the medium, RZA is a world-builder who has conceptualized the contours of the rich, bloody, dense universe he created down to the most insignificant details. The Man With The Iron Fists is a profoundly visceral experience, in that its wall-to-wall super-violence literally sprays the wall with the viscera of countless doomed and dismembered henchman. As co-writer, Roth seems intent on proving a martial-arts film can have as much graphic violence as one of his torture-porn endeavors.
The Man With The Iron Fists has the same advantages of many musical debuts. It’s the product of a man who has been storing up ideas, setpieces, characters, and gags for a lifetime, in preparation for the magic moment when he’d be able to unleash his full vision on the big screen. Cinematically as well as musically, RZA is an auteur whose gaudy trash-culture aesthetic masks underlying meticulous care. If films can be measured by whether they accomplish what they set out to do, then The Man With The Iron Fists is a rousing success: It’s clearly the kung-fu epic RZA has been dreaming about making since he was a snotty-nosed kid sneaking into martial-arts double features.
Though he’s sometimes a little too subdued, RZA has a powerful inner calm as a protagonist guided by a unique destiny, while Crowe’s defiantly theatrical turn as an opium-smoking, sexually insatiable British killing machine with a wry sense of humor feels like a lusty, inspired homage to famously pickled British hams like Oliver Reed and Richard Burton, neither of whom would have been out of place in these pulpy surroundings. Fans have been waiting for the credit “A Film By RZA” to appear on the big screen for ages, and while late-period Wu-Tang Clan is defined by disappointments and aggressively lowered expectations, The Man With The Iron Fists proves shockingly worth the wait.