"THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS" — ★ — RZA, Rick Yune, Lucy Liu, Russell Crowe; R (bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use); in general release
The WuTang Clan rapper RZA, aka Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, takes on acting, writing, directing, composing and rapping duties on his film, "The Man With the Iron Fists." That makes him, what, a quintuple threat?
But a threat to what? He's a terrible actor, an incompetent narrator, a mediocre writer and paint-by-numbers director.
And he's a guy with a serious samurai Jones — he had a samurai cameo in Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog," popped up on "Afro Samurai" on TV and has a recurring role — "Samurai Apocalypse" - on TV's "Californication." So the movie, which torture-porn king Eli Roth helped him get on the screen, is a variation of the "Blind Swordsman" series of Japanese spatter films. Set in China, with no samurai.
RZA plays a narrating blacksmith caught up in power struggle between clans in some late 19th century fantasy China out of '70s grindhouse martial arts movies. Characters fly at each other, practice exotic forms of kung fu, turn to bronze when it suits them and hack each other to bits in epic brawls where only the minions and villains bleed out.
The unnamed blacksmith, an ex-American slave, has his arms lopped off at one point. And since Quentin Tarantino "introduces" the movie with a trailer to his "Django Unchained," think of this genre-and-history bender as "Django Unarmed."
Though Russell Crowe's first entrance, playing a plump and dapper English slasher named "Mr. Knife, but you can call me 'Jack,'" is worth a chuckle. It's a good look for playing police inspector Javert in "Les Miserables," though it shows the Oscar winner's leading-man days are 50 pounds in the past. Crowe has never given a worse performance, but RZA was in Crowe's "The Next Three Days," so maybe that was a favor being repaid.
The trouble with virtually every rapper to make the leap to acting is how much their musical guise limits their screen range. RZA could never be in a serious period piece, because he's too modern, too street. Reading his own narration, he sounds like a rapper reading his favorite Chinese folk tale. Badly. And it's badly written, too.
"Meanwhile," he says, stating the obvious, "Zen Yi was getting closer to Jungle Village."
Jungle Village is where this ax and sword and poison dart showdown between The Lion Clan, The Hyena Clan, The Wolf Clan, The Eleven Rodents, The Gemini Killers, etc., is to take place. Zen Yi, clumsily played by Rick (formerly Ricky) Yune, is the son of a murdered clan leader who is traveling in his Suit of Knives to Jungle Village for revenge — and to interfere with the theft of some government bullion. That's what has brought Jack Knife there. That feud, which requires lots of weapons, has been helping the blacksmith pay off his prostitute girlfriend's debts to the madam (Lucy Liu) at her brothel.
It's a lurching, stumbling movie that botches most details and dwells on others — any involving lopped-off arms, legs and heads, viscera, and cauterizing wounds.
"The Man With The Iron Fists" is rated R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use; running time: 94 minutes.