The Blacksmith (RZA) who worked in the small but crucial region of China known as Jungle Village has a tale to tell, about how he became a legend and how the place he had made his home after moving there to escape slavery in America was the site of one of the most epic battles in hand-to-hand combat history. Not only hands were used, as the Blacksmith was an expert in creating the most powerful and efficient weaponry around, which gave him a reputation as the man to go to if you were spoiling for a fight and needed the best defence - and best offence.
Although the latter aspect came into play when a whole bunch of cinema audiences saw this and were deeply offended at what they saw as one of the worst movies of all time. This was RZA's debut as director and he had penned the script with horror exponent Eli Roth, so naturally as an homage to nineteen-seventies kung fu movies made by Americans was on the cards, it simply had to be presented by Quentin Tarantino, leading those viewers to expect that Kill Bill kind of vibe. When they got more of a Shaw Brothers updated to the twenty-first century vibe instead, it was really only the diehard fans of such efforts who were willing to back RZA up.
He had of course made his name in hip-hop group The Wu-Tang Clan, no strangers to the appeal of martial arts flicks as the name suggested, but for RZA this abiding love of the genre went so far he wanted to make one himself, and The Man with the Iron Fists was the result. Therefore the plotlines typified by that heyday of Hong Kong movies were well to the fore, with revenge, greed and betrayal all on the menu, and an excuse for the cast to set about beating each other up - not really, they were pretending for the camera under Corey Yuen's choreography (which we didn't see enough of). Such was the director's obsession with the form that he wanted to be a kung fu star himself, and you could observe there were problems there.
No matter his achievements in music, the unwavering, hangdog expression RZA sported throughout no matter what crushing indignity befell his character or what enormous triumph he won through with was less stoic and more frozen in the glare of the studio lights. Fortunately for us, he employed better actors around him, so it wasn't a case of watching his wooden countenance for ninety minutes or so (it was apparently four hours in the original cut which may be more than even its most committed adherents would be able to take). Along with such Asian stars of various generations appearing as Lucy Liu as the madam of the local brothel where nobody takes off their clothes, Jamie Chung as Blacksmith's true love (when you're directing you can get someone who looks like that as your romantic partner) and even Gordon Liu in a small role as a head monk, there was a certain Aussie.
Step forward Russell Crowe as Jack Knife (lots of slightly self-consciously cool names in this) who didn't, sadly, get involved with the martial arts, but he did have a gun that was also a knife, so that would have to do. He seemed to be enjoying himself anyway, and didn't really deserve the criticism he got because he was attuned to the tone of the enterprise at least as much as Byron Mann, who played main bad guy Silver Lion. Mann was having tons of fun emphasising the charismatic qualities of the villain, and the manner in which the plot tried to cover as many evil fighters as possible - and goodhearted, too - meant that we didn't spend as much time with him as we would like. This dilution of spirit thanks to RZA and Roth adding a "wouldn't it be awesome if this happened?!" scene every minute did have a detrimental effect, and you wished the editing had been more ruthless - supposed hero Rick Yune's bladed suit makes more of an impression than he does. Nevertheless, with reservations this did contain a pulp verve which spoke to its creators, if more than the potential audience.