LOS ANGELES - A boiling pot of wild martial arts moves culled from dozens (maybe hundreds) of violent Asian action extravaganzas as sifted through a Tarantino-esque fanboy prism, "The Man With the Iron Fists" feels like both a lavish vanity project and an earnest attempt to deliver a compendium of cool hand-to-hand combat set pieces. The vogue for kung fu, elaborate wire work and fancy blade flashing seems rather past its due-date at this point, making director RZA's realization of his childhood enthusiasms feel a bit quaint, but you certainly can't say it's dull or uneventful. Still, in the U.S., at least, it's hard to see this Universal release breaking out beyond hardcore action fans.
Hip-hop megastar RZA of Wu-Tang Clan grew up as Robert Fitzgerald Diggs watching Asian martial arts films at New York neighborhood theaters in the late `70s and `80s, and his first big-time outing as a director-writer-star feels like the result of notes he might have scribbled about the wildest, most outrageous action scenes he saw in movies like "Fists of Double K," "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin," "Godfathers of Hong Kong" and anything else he could track down from the Shaw Brothers. Tarantino, on board as presenter, entered the mix when RZA handled the score for "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" and spent a month in China watching him shoot, which led to the connection with Eli Roth, a co-writer and co-producer here.
A cocktail blending aspects of the Chinese wuxia martial arts genre and the Japanese jidaigeki itinerant samurai/craftsman/peasant format, the Shanghai-shot Iron Fists features more lavish production values than most of its precursors as well as an odd but appealing stew of international actors including Russell Crowe as a British mercenary, Lucy Liu as an all-knowing brothel madame, World Wrestling Entertainment star David Bautista as an invincible warrior and RZA as Blacksmith, a former slave who crafts exotic weapons for one and all.
The aptly named Jungle Village is like a Chinese "Deadwood," the baddest town on the frontier where anything goes and outlaws roam free. The simple setup has a clan chief betrayed and killed for his horde of gold by his sadistic militia leader Silver Lion (streaked-hair rock star-type Byron Mann). Rampaging and killing as they please, Silver Lion and his animalistic top fighter Bronze Lion (Cung Le) threaten to bring Jungle Village to its knees, but handsome rightful heir Zen Yi, The X-Blade (Rick Yune), Crowe's hedonistic Jack Knife and Blacksmith form a Leone-esque ad hoc band of loners each whom has his own reasons for getting back at Silver Lion.
Zap! Pow! Wham! opening credits set the tone for the wild and sometimes splattery proceedings. This is the sort of film where the main characters are defined first and foremost by what type of weaponry they favor: for Jack Knife, it's a fancy combo of gutting knife and pistol; The X-Blade sports a sleek outfit concealing an endless array of sharp objects and projectiles beneath black leather; and Blacksmith fashions for himself forearms and hands of spiked metal, which would qualify him as a uniquely qualified opponent for the mega-fisted title character in the simultaneous release "Wreck-It-Ralph."
Within this format, RZA and Roth are free to concoct any sort of mayhem they can invent or lift from their extensive memory banks. Very few minutes go by without some sort of combat; there's plenty of spinning, running/jumping up walls and through the air, skull bashing, eyes and guts popping, prostitutes catching fighters in a black widow-like web, sword clashing, gory puncturing and elaborate demolition of buildings. Most distinctive, perhaps, is the already rock-hard torso of Bautista's aptly named Brass Body automatically turning to metal when struck, rather like an ancient Greek fighter in a vintage Ray Harryhausen effects epic.
It's all sufficiently well done and amusing enough to satisfy the appetites of fans who mainline this sort of thing, but it also sports a concocted, secondhand feel common to this sort of throwback homage when it lacks the stylistic inspiration and imaginative flair for genre reinvention of a Leone or Tarantino. In this sense, RZA seems more the dedicated student than a new heir apparent.
Fun does come from the wildly imaginative weapons designs, Liu's crafty manipulations of everyone who sets foot in her house of pleasure, Crowe's sporting holiday in a role that would have been relished by his late "Gladiator" co-star Oliver Reed, the cramming of so many Asian martial arts hallmarks/cliches into one scenario and the weird conjunction of Chinese setting and mostly hip-hop-style soundtrack. Production values are certainly better than those on most of the films RZA idolized in his youth, while his visual handling is more industrious than stylish.
"The Man With the Iron Fists," a Universal release, is rated R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use. Running time: 95 minutes.