Director-cinematographer Roel Reiné (12 Rounds 2: Reloaded, The Marine 2) may be the quintessential journeyman of the direct-to-video action industry. But though his no-frills approach to filmmaking has its charms, it makes him the wrong choice to direct a movie like The Man With The Iron Fists 2, which attempts to replicate the original’s mish-mash of midnight movies and Staten Island wuxia, only for way less money and without any scenery-chewing stars.
What it needs is a touch of the outrageous, which, suffice it to say, is not Reiné’s bag. He likes explosions and half-gallon squibs, but his style is mostly practical-minded. (There are exceptions, like the scene in The Scorpion King 3 in which a pissing Viking gets kicked in the balls by a ninja in slow motion.) Applied to the kind of material that all but begs for gonzo direction, Reiné’s rough, efficient framing comes across as unimaginative. It has neither the colorful flair of authentic Hong Kong martial arts movies, nor the first Man With The Iron Fists’ over-stuffed pastiche of the same.
Though he’s handed over directing duties, RZA still takes top billing as the title character, Thaddeus, a former slave who has left 19th-century America for an improbable career as a blacksmith and mystic hero in rural China. Here, in what feels distressingly like the first of many bargain-bin adventures, he washes ashore in a mining village where the usual problems of cruel overlords and poor working conditions have been compounded by a rash of murders where the victims appear to have been drained of their life force. A viewer familiar with the Hong Kong genre canon can’t help but hope that hopping vampires are to blame. No such luck.
Thaddeus spends most of the movie off screen, almost as though RZA—who is only technically an actor—was too big a star for his own direct-to-video sequel. The role of de facto protagonist therefore falls on colorless local hero Li Kung (Dustin Nguyen), who handles the interminable mining disputes and indifferently staged fight scenes. Upper-management type Thaddeus only shows up for the more glamorous work of giving speeches about mystical mumbo-jumbo and prosthetic iron limbs in slow-mo.
If that sounds somewhat tedious, it’s because it is, and no amount of irony-free exclamation-mark dialogue (“The Beetle Clan are killing our men! We must stand up for ourselves!”) or cool soundtrack samples (The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly’s “Ecstasy Of Gold” cue figures prominently) can make it otherwise. For once, though, Reiné’s over-reliance on post-synced sound feels of-a-piece; it gives the movie the stilted sonic texture of a genuine bad dub job.
The appeal of wuxia lies in the way it creates a world of outsize values; everything, from somersaults to codes of honor, is bigger than it is in the real world. With the exception of a handful of gruesome takedowns and some brief flashes of the fantastical, The Man With Iron Fists 2 only suggests a world that is duller and cheaper-looking than the real thing.