Last night, I did a really dumb thing. I watched The Man With the Iron Fists, directed by and starring the RZA and produced by Quentin Tarentino.
Why, you might ask, would I do this?
Because it was mindless dinner-time entertainment. Because it was free on HBO On Demand. Because it would be good fodder for a blog post. Because how bad could it really be? Because I hate myself.
They say that if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. In that spirit, here is everything that’s good about The Man With the Iron Fists:
1) The fight choreography of the Gemini Killers scene was at moments kind of elegant.
2) There are a lot of starving Asian and Asian American actors who can now afford a turkey sandwich for dinner. This week.
3) Lucy Liu’s cape was very sparkly.
Not that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to business.
This post will contain spoilers. But then again, this movie isn’t worth protecting from spoilers.
The Man with the Iron Fists is an Asian fetishist’s wet-dream. Which is perhaps not surprising, considering it is the end result of empowering Hollywood’s two leading Asian fetishists — Quentin Tarentino, Hollywood’s foremost rip-off artist, and RZA, a member of the Wu Tang Clan –with $20 million dollars (yes, you read that figure right) and a mission to make an Asian martial arts “homage” film.
Now, let’s be clear, The Man with the Iron Fists hits all the notes that one might expect when two fanboys interpret a genre that originates out of a culture that is not their own. There is plenty of wire-fu, flashy fight choreography, larger-than-life personalities, physical comedy, and dramatic pausing typical of the retro martial arts genre that this movie is drawing from. It feels exactly like the movies it’s trying to emulate. The problem is kind of like what happens when you take a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy — you get ass for your final product. Racist, sexist, misogynistic, and offensive ass.
First of all, The Man with the Iron Fists is just a really, really, really bad movie. The acting is non-existent — everybody actually sounds like they are badly dubbing their own voices. The “plot” (and I use this term fairly loosely) is unfollowable. Everybody is a stock cardboard cut-out caricature that is led by the incoherent storyline from scene to scene, as if each is just a deus ex machina to get our protagonists and villains from one action-packed and completely substance-less fight scene to another. In fact, The Man with the Iron Fists isn’t really a movie. It’s porn: kung fu-porn, action-porn, Orientalist-porn, gore-porn, and just porn-porn. Porn wherein plot and characterization matters far less than the “money shot”. Basically, it’s RZA’s porn starring RZA.
The Man With the Iron Fists follows the story of RZA, an American slave whose mother (played by Pam Grier in a cameo appearance) secures his freedom. But, in an outtake from Django Unchained, RZA causes the death of a racist White man whose every fourth word is “nigger”. For fear of being lynched, he escapes into a ship and shipwrecks in China where he learns magic “chi” powers from Buddhist monk and legend of the martial arts genre, Gordon Liu. Then, for totally unknown and unimportant reasons, he becomes a blacksmith in a rural Chinese village called “Jungle Village” (I kid you not), where the local residents bizarrely alternate between badly-accented subtitled Mandarin and wow-this-actually-sounds-like-dubbing-even-though-you’re-talking English. In that capacity, RZA becomes our first-person narrator for the movie, which is made all the worse because it turns out that RZA. Can’t. Talk. He’s completely unintelligible. He would have been better subtitled.
In Jungle Village, RZA is trapped between warring clans who all name themselves after animals, however peace is largely maintained through the fedual oversight of the Lion clan, led by Gold Lion, an old guy with flowing red hair which basically makes him look like Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter movies. The hair thing is kind of important because apparently everyone else in the Lion clan blowdries out their hair — ostensibly to look like manes, but mostly just to look “fabulous”. Either way, Gold Lion is basically irrelevant, because in the opening credits he is betrayed and killed by David Bowie Lion, who then leads the clan to war.
Promoted to the rank of second lieutenant is David Bowie Lion’s right-hand man, Fabio Lion.
Then, we meet Russell Crowe who is kind of distractingly portly in this film and who despite being a British imperialist whose main job is to sell opium to the Chinese for the British government, serves as our secondary protagonist. That’s right, a dude who at the end of the film explicitly acknowledges that he is poisoning Chinese people on purpose, is our hero. Russell Crowe’s character is named Jack Knife,which is not nearly as clever as RZA thinks it is.
Jack Knife shows up at Jungle Village’s only business, a whorehouse called the
Pink Blossom House of Vaginas, run by Madame Blossom Vagina (Lucy Liu), and which includes among its many, many prostitutes the young girl called Lady Silk Vagina (Jamie Chung). There, Jack Knife eviscerates another portly fellow named Crazy Hippo for no good reason and then has fairly graphic sex with prostitutes for half the movie.
It turns out that Lady Vagina is RZA’s girlfriend, and that RZA is saving up gold to buy her freedom from Madame Vagina. Whatever.
Meanwhile, up in the mountains, Rick Yune shows up as Knife Guy (I found out in the credits that his name was X-Fighter, like he was Wolvie’s long-lost and totally lame second cousin).
Knife Guy is Gold Lion’s biological son (I think) and he lives on the mountain and has dedicated most of his life to getting heart-shaped tattooes and prancing through flower-filled fields with some girl I’m going to call Knife Guy’s Mountaintop Chick. She’s unimportant because after Knife Guy leaves to avenge his father, we never see her again. Knife Guy journeys (fight scene, fight scene, fight scene) to Jungle Village with a top-knotted Jin the Emcee (guess the rap game ain’t treatin’ him so well) in tow. There he meets up with David Bautista who has been hired by David Bowie Lion to kill him. David Bautista can turn his body into brass making him invincible to knives. Fight scene, fight scene, fight scene: top-Knotted Jin the Emcee is killed, and Knife Guy is wounded but is rescued and nursed back to health by RZA.
While all this is happening, the Gemini Killers — a male-and-female fighting duo — is travelling through the village with some gold for the emperor (I think). Mrs. Gemini has a hankerin’ for some spare ribs so they stop for some food. Fight scene, fight scene, fight scene and David Bowie Lion steals the gold and the Gemini Killers die.
Jack Knife shows up in the aftermath and orders some duck.
Then, David Bowie Lion kidnaps RZA for some reason and lop his arms off. Jack Knife rescues him and then he, Knife Guy and RZA join forces to take down David Bowie Lion. Some orphans use RZA’s blacksmith shop to forge some iron arms which he cauterizes onto his stumpy forearms, and which he can manipulate with his Buddhist magic “chi” powers. They decide to attack the House of Vaginas where David Bowie Lion is keeping his stolen gold. They arrive a little late, however, because it turns out that (after a gratuitous bathtub scene) Madame Vagina has instructed all her little baby Vaginas to have sex with their Lion Clan clients and then kill them while they are sleeping in post-coital bliss. Or, in other words, to kill them with their vaginas.
They do this, then put on a bunch of Black leather and stomp around the House of Vaginas, and it turns out that they are secretly the Goth Vagina Clan. Problem is that Lady Vagina was having sex with David Bautista and apparently he doesn’t sleep soundly enough after orgasming, and he stops her from killing him. He kills her instead, which pisses of RZA. So, RZA joins the Goth Vaginas in trying to take down Fabio Lion and David Bautista, which eventually they do, although not before Fabio Lion kills Madame Vagina who is distracted in saving some dumb kid who ran into the fight. And also not before RZA goes super saiyon and beats David Bautista into a brassy pulp.
Meanwhile, Jack Knife confronts the secret member of the Lion Clan, some dude with ridiculous eyebrows and poison darts whose importance was completely lost on me, and whom I’m going to call Albino Lion. Jack Knife kills Albino Lion, and then either he or Knife Guy kills David Bowie Lion by burying him under his own gold. I kind of forget. My brain had turned to mush by this point.
Then, that’s pretty much the end.
I hope that little summary conveys to you how totally ridiculous this hate crime of a movie actually is. Not only does it commit the crime of being totally shitty in terms of acting, directing, plot and execution, but it’s also riddled with anti-Asian and anti-Black jokes, and misogyny. Virtually all of the Asian men save Knife Guy are either extras or villains who get cut to ribbons by our protagonists, and every single woman in the movie is treated –quite literally — like a walking vagina. There is even a scene where Madame Vagina thrusts a key into the vagina of a porcelain statue of a woman, and thereby opens a secret passageway. The sheer amount of violence and hate perpetrated against the Asian/Asian American body in this movie is totally astounding in its scope. In fact, this movie is actually impressive in how many horrible Asian stereotypes, tropes, anti-Asian jokes and cliches RZA and Quentin Tarentino are capable of ramming into a 90 minute period, from dog-eating jokes to small penis jokes to dragon lady and lotus blossom stereotypes.
But, perhaps what is most galling to me about Man with the Iron Fists is that it was treated with anticipation by some within the Asian American community and by film critics at-large. With just the trailer to go on, there were several Asian Americans who remarked off-the-record that they were looking forward to this movie, which they thought would be a visually exciting reinterpretation of the kung fu genre. Except, did they forget who was at the helm? We should expect nothing but shitty fetishism from committed and unabashed Orientalists like Quentin Tarentino and the RZA, the former of whom was responsible for the movie that (until now) held the title for the worst on-screen violence against the Asian form on-camera in combination with tasteless ethnic humour, Kill Bill. Just like we should expect racist crap from Seth MacFarlane. We shouldn’t let our desire to see ourselves on-screen blind ourselves from the fact that racist shit is racist shit.
“But,” you might protest, “this was supposed to be an homage!” Except homage is supposed to celebrate a genre. Man with the Iron Fists is so poorly done that it fails to elevate or reimagine the kung fu genre from which is draws its inspiration. Whereas most good homages make you want to go back and relieve the classics, Man with the Iron Fists illustrated every limitation of kung fu movies, making them feel dated and silly, not deserving of nostalgia. A movie in the guise of homage that pretty much involves a reimagining wherein people outside of a particular race appropriate the cultural media of people within the race to make a movie that involves the sexual and physical conquest and domination of everybody of that race isn’t homage, it’s a distasteful and worthless racial and sexual power fantasy.
That being said, if RZA set out to make his very own custom porn, he certainly succeeded. Man with the Iron Fists is a RZA/Quentin Tarentino sex tape. And, that’s exactly how it should be treated: left to live in the dark and sticky recesses of RZA’s personal porn collection, and never to be forced upon the rest of humanity.
Shame on RZA and Quentin Tarentino for making this offensive, racist and sexist travesty. And, really, shame on me for watching.
At least I didn’t pay for it.