When you have the cachet of Quentin Tarantino, you can put your name and the word ‘presents’ above the title of a movie and communicate a whole playbook of brand association. Writer/director RZA (of Wu Tang Clan fame) and his co-writer Eli Roth claim QT was available and hands on when it came to this love letter to cult kung-fu cinema (and thanks to his relationship to Roth that might be true), but Tarantino might just have recognised the project as being very much his kind of jam.
Because from the very first fight scene full of outrageous wire-work and larger than life characters (Gold, Silver and Bronze Lion, to name a few), you know what kind of thing you’re in for.
Enemy clans of warriors and martial arts experts co-exist uneasily near a feudal-era village in China where an escaped slave from America (RZA) makes a quiet living as a blacksmith. All he wants to do is keep his head down and amass enough money to escape with his lover (Jamie Chung), a working girl in the Pink Blossom brothel that serves as the social epicentre of the village.
But when news emerges of a cache of government gold being transported through town, the game is on. The tyrannical Silver Lion (Byron Mann) has already deposed the clan’s former leader and is now gunning for the gold and prepared to step on anyone who gets in his way, including his brother, the good-hearted Zen Yi (Rick Yune).
There’s also rakish British army officer Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), who envelops himself in the seedy life of wine and women at the Pink Blossom thanks to the hospitality of Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu), who nobody is aware has a few tricks up her own sleeve thanks to her multi-skilled employees.
The Blacksmith enjoys a spike in business thanks to the warring factions descending on his village, but he knows it can’t end well. After being on the fearsome receiving end of the scary Brass Body (Dave Bautista), a giant who can change his body to metal at will, the Blacksmith becomes the hero of the title, literally wielding iron fists and teaming up with Jack Knife and Zen Yi on a rampage of vengeance for himself and the woman he loves.
There’s so much kinetic action on screen it’s easy to miss Drew Boughton’s outstanding production design. No doubt after having pored over a thousand classic kung fu movies with RZA (who’s a self confessed addict of them), he’s recreated a picturesque Chinese peasant village down to the last detail, whether it’s the sweaty shadows of the blacksmith’s workshop or the gaudy swathes of colour in the Pink Blossom. Costumes become weapons, every character has a very distinct look and the visual story – even as a vehicle to deliver you from one fight scene to the next – is easy to follow and digest.
As a director, RZA has no doubt created exactly what he envisioned, and you’ll agree if you’re a fan of this genre (you also won’t be alone following the announcement his next film is a biopic on the life of Genghis Khan). As an actor, he should have stepped aside. At times he’s so incoherent you only know what he’s on about by the cues from his co-stars, and most of the time he’s so devoid of emotion and expression it looks like he’s fallen asleep.
The one having the most fun is Russell Crowe. After a career full of heavy, worthy roles from ”Gladiator” onwards this is probably like a huge pizza after a strict diet for him, and he slathers the sleazy charm on thick as the opportunist, self-effacing rogue.
It’s fast, furious and fun, and if there’s any chance RZA accepts a directing Oscar any time in the future, this will be where we remember it all started.
Extras : Deleted scenes, featurettes.