RZA's directorial debut, The Man With the Iron Fists, is by pretty much any measurement you care to use a horrible film. It poorly tells an already overstuffed, convoluted story and pairs dumb dialog with ridiculous performances, all while brimming with random anachronisms.
But that's the point. I've read some reviews referring to this as an unofficial third Grindhouse film, and that's an apt summation. RZA is 100% in homage mode here, which deems the overpopulated story appropriate. The flashback origin provided to RZA's character in particular nearly enters farce territory, but still manages to feel right.
The wooden acting belongs, too. Not only can the particular type of horrible displayed by Lucy Liu only be intentional, but much of the absurdly California-accented Asian cast goes out of its way to mimic the stilted dubbing voices recognizable to any kung fu fan. This might actually be the film's most successful homage element. The biggest perpetrator of this "dubbing voice" spends much of the film with a hood on his head, partly to evoke some sense of mystery, but I'm guessing it's also a tactic to force viewers into feeling the nostalgia behind his specific vocal patterns.
As for the anachronism, that's just the flavor one would hope for from the RZA kung fu film. I'd be offended if the film didn't break off an out of nowhere "motherfucker" at least once. Actually, the film doesn't spend enough energy on this. For some reason RZA mixes the inevitable hip-hop cuts surprisingly low, as if hesitant to make that part of the film's aesthetic.
The Man With the Iron Fists' throwback nature wins it a big, fat N/A on most movie quality checklists. All anyone really asks is that it contain a lot of the wacky violent kung fu action teased by the trailer and RZA's well known love for the genre. And it does! Unfortunately, you can't see any of it.
This film belongs to the Chaos School of editing. While that's certainly bad enough, it also suffers from a weirdly arrhythmic shot pace, which means the actions scenes are not only incomprehensible, but often awkward as well. Occasionally the film even lacks necessary sound effects to accompany action and punctuate movement. It's a weird misstep for someone so steeped in these films to make.
But most damning of all is how close RZA comes to nailing it. The characters are fucking awesome, most of them packing seriously exciting weaponry you can't wait to see utilized. From what you can make out, RZA quotes classic kung fu gags all over the place (not really coming up with many of his own, though). The details are so spot on. This isn't just a bad action film. Rather, it indicates the set up and probable on-set execution of a superior action film unfortunately obscured by poor photography and editing, resulting in a punishingly frustrating action film.
But the film does contain one unwavering bright spot thanks to the joyous beef-jerky performance given by Russell Crowe. I have never been a big Russell Crowe fan before, but it turns out I'm a fan of big Russell Crowe (hyuck!). While the oft repeated assertion that Crowe's performance was inspired by Old Dirty Bastard never manifests in any meaningful way, he does embrace his cheesy inner Liam Neeson and finds pay dirt in the process. Crowe seems to be having the time of his life shooting, stabbing and fucking his way through the film, and his fun is contagious. He isn't a lead character (I'm not sure the film even has a lead character. Halfway through, it kind of turns to RZA to carry the story, but it's way too late for us to care by then), but he's definitely the film's dirty Han Solo and biggest winner.
There are enough good moments that the film will earn some fans, but not nearly the amount it needs to cross over or raise much enthusiasm for RZA's upcoming directorial projects. Of the many fights in this film, only one (RZA vs. Brass Body) delivers on the potential teased in the trailer. I'm an action guy, but I'd rather watch a bunch of people talking about terminal illness and adultery than sit through these incomprehensible fight scenes.
And with a project like this, that particular complaint becomes a real deal breaker. I really wanted to like this (click my byline if you want some idea of my anticipation), but RZA commits the Cardinal Action Movie Sin here, and it's ultimately an unforgivable one, regardless of how many anal beads Russell Crowe pulls out of a prostitute's bum with his teeth.