RZA’s first feature film, this is a through-and-through homage to classic martial arts films, with some unique signatures added in. Co-written with Eli Roth and with an undisclosed involvement from Quentin Tarantino (“presented by” probably meaning very little actual involvement) and billing Russell Crowe as the star, it shows signs of promise, however vague and uncertain.
It’s set up as a fairly standard entry to the genre, with the various characters & factions and their respective plot lines lifted straight out of hundreds of films before it. But originality in these areas was probably never going to be the purpose of this type of film. Among these are the Lion Clan who look like a mostly overweight medieval-themed J-Metal band, but fronted by Cung Le as the Bronze Lion who is a brilliantly camp unhinged bad guy. The Blacksmith/The Man With the Iron Fists, played by RZA himself, isn’t really a character, rather a vessel for ‘cool’ narration and a cookie-cut protagonist that we’re apparently supposed to root for. Lucy Liu plays the brothel owner, Madam Blossom. Supposedly she talked RZA into making her the stronger, more developed character that she is, but at any rate she and RZA do allow the film some interesting reflections on race and gender. Stealing the show, however, is Russell Crowe as Jack Knife; a randy, opium-addicted British soldier who instantly switches from mild-mannered Englishman to vicious madman, with his awesome spinny-gun-knife.
All that aside, the main requirement of this film is lots and lots of great fight scenes. From the very first scene it lives up to that promise, though anyone expecting a more straight martial arts film will be disappointed to see that they verge on being hilariously over-the-top, with much gravity-ignorant wirework but plenty of honest inventiveness. There’s no restraint on the gore, with blood spouting like fountains in most fight scenes, and there’s a real excitement behind every one of them. The trouble is, however, that it not only doesn’t build on these scenes as it reaches the climax, but actually struggles to maintain this level of quality, becoming a visual white noise of spinning blades and fists that gets improbably boring towards the end.
It has enough pieces holding it together, and RZA manages to integrate some personal style to the film, especially with an unusual urban & electronic soundtrack being carefully worked to fit. The attempts at a similarly strong visual style are not so carefully managed though, with techniques such as exaggerated digital camera movements, split-screen, and slow motion being used over-frequently meaning they’re inevitably going to look good a few times, almost feeling like happy accidents, with countless more uses being at best pointless, and at worst awful. Though the plot is generally grounded in reality, there are moments of fantasy that are almost completely unexplained that feel really out of place, and a little desperate to ‘do something new’.
This may read like a shredding review, but at the centre of the film are some enjoyable characters and great fight scenes, even if they don’t build in the way they ought to. I hear that the original cut of this film was 4 hours; perhaps a longer cut would fill in certain gaps for the fantastical elements, or develop some characters a bit more (or indeed at all), but I fear any more than the 90 minutes it was cut to would drag it beyond it’s worth as a silly throwaway film worth a watch for fans of the genre wanting something brainlessly entertaining, or purely for Russell Crowe’s performance.