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Review: The Man with the Iron Fists is an R-rated Saturday morning cartoon

What would you even call the Wu-Tang Clan at this point? There are few groups more prolific. From music to video games, clothing lines, acting careers, and now, thanks to RZA, a film written and directed by one of its members, it's safe to say Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothin' ta f*** with. That said, does The Man with the Iron Fists live up to the rest of RZA's successful career?

The answer is a mixed bag. It's hard to pinpoint exactly where this film goes wrong, though there are some easy targets. The plot, for one, feels disjointed and unfocused. Is this the story of Jungle Village, a den for warriors, criminals, and prostitutes? Or is it the story of the Blacksmith, the man who, through some unfortunate events, rises to become the eponymous man with the iron fists? Or is it simply the story of a colorful cast of characters gathering to battle for gold and glory? The film can't ever make up its mind, and the result is a bit sloppy.

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The meandering plot isn't aided by the dialogue either. Characters speak almost exclusively in Kung-Fu cliches. It's clearly an intentional move, but the tongue isn't planted in the cheek firmly enough to appreciate it. While a film like Kill Bill applies Kung Fu Theater tropes for stylistic effect, or something like Black Dynamite will find brilliant comedy in the mocking of Blaxploitation cinema, The Man with the Iron Fists applies it's antiquated toolkit a bit too literally. The result is something that feels more like a hyper-violent and sexual Saturday morning cartoon than clever cinema.

Hammering home the film's flaws is its annoying habit of showing too little of the action. Far from the first film to ruin fight scenes with hyper-kinetic editing, it's still particularly annoying here because martial arts movies are usually all about showing off the insane stunts. A reliance on CG and actors who probably can't do anything too flashy probably doesn't help, but the fights here are shown too zoomed in and chopped up for my tastes.

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Front-loading all my complaints with this movie probably makes it seem like a wasted effort, but despite some fundamental issues there is a heart to The Man with the Iron Fists that's hard to deny. It's clear that a lot of time went into crafting this world and its colorful cast of characters. Every character, from Russell Crowe as Jack Knife to David Bautista as The Brass Body, feels wildly creative. The disparate elements may not coalesce into something special, but the individual parts have been thoughtfully created.

There are moments where The Man with the Iron Fists starts to come together. When we learn the Blacksmith's back story, it seems the film may finally get rolling. Unfortunately he never truly steps into the forefront, making the subsequent mish-mash of battles and various motives continue to feel unfocused.

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Often something can be more than the sum of its parts, but in the case of this film it seems to be the opposite. I was constantly bouncing between enjoyment and boredom, laughter and bafflement, excitement and confusion. Sometimes, though, the RZA-produced beats and visual flair of this film come together to make something magical. It's just a matter of how many disappointments you're willing to endure along the journey.

star

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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