The Man with the Iron Fists the directorial debut of music artist RZA is clearly a love letter to all of the Wu Tang frontman's passions. An old school kung fu movie infused with hip hop beats and a comic book aesthetic Iron Fists rarely makes a lick of sense but it's a collage of imagination — and that earns it a few points. Like a cinematic version of the backyard games we all used to play RZA casts himself as a Chinese town's resident badass who teams up with a cowboy to take down an army of ninjas assassins. The freeform style allows him to run wild rarely providing actual thrills but resulting in an action movie overflowing with heart. Bloody bloody heart.
The manic script for Iron Fists written by RZA and Eli Roth (Cabin Fever Hostel) interlocks a handful of colorful characters with varying degrees of success: The Blacksmith (RZA) a freed slave who hopes to earn enough bucks to whisk his love prostitute Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) away from the Pink Blossom brothel; Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu) the brothel's owner (and local mobster); Silver Lion (Byron Mann) a murderous gangster out to overtake the city with the help of his magical metallic underling Brass Body (Dave Bautista); Zen Yi a.k.a. The X-Blade (Rick Yune) whose father was killed at the hands of Silver Lion and now seeks revenge; and Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) a mysterious British gunslinger taking residence at the Pink Blossom who may have ulterior motives. Iron Fists bounces between the plot threads without much worry — you never really know who is doing what or why. But if characters say what they're thinking with conviction then beat the daylights out of their opponent it's supposed to suffice. More often than not it does.
What Iron Fists lacks in coherency it makes up for in absurdity. RZA pumps up the volume on every element of the film from costumes that shoot daggers to flamboyant overacting evildoers to Jack Knife taking the goriest route to defeat an enemy (in this case using a knife gun to rip up a heavyset man's insides). Taking a page from mentor Quentin Tarantino's book anything can happen in this Eastern martial soap opera and everything does happen. It's money shot after money shot the rapid pace reminiscent of channel surfing — likely the way most kung fu fans stumbled upon the type of films that inspire Iron Fists back in the '70s and '80s.
Not every moment pops — unlike Liu and Crowe RZA doesn't exactly light up the screen when given the freedom to go crazy. Blacksmith is a muted mumbling character who doesn't throw himself into a fight the way a kung fu movie demands from its lead. Behind the camera the fight scenes are choreographed similarly to how the movie is structured: randomly with the occasional inspired moment. But the inventiveness of the mechanics keeps Iron Fists working. A scene with two twins using contortion to throw and kick and punch their way through hoards of bad guys is a joy. Seeing Crowe (obviously not an expert in martial arts) lay down a few moves is pure fun too.
The Man with the Iron Fists isn't as expertly crafted as Tarantino's Kill Bill but it has more mind-boggling oddities. RZA unleashes his passion into the film so even when the story or action isn't working something else on screen is.
The story of Lust Caution begins in the midst of WWII in Asia as the Japanese have a stranglehold on key areas of China including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The iron-fisted Chinese who are collaborating with the invaders are led by Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) a cruel and ruthless man who delights in the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen who are fighting against the Japanese occupation. When a patriotic band of college students (made up of four men and two women all part of the drama school) decide to strike a blow for Chinese freedom by assassinating Mr. Yee it falls to Wang (the mesmerizingly beautiful Wei Tang) to infiltrate his home and heart to pave the way for the killing. But as her compatriots--including handsome Kuang played by American-born Chinese rock star Lee-Hom Wang who loves her from afar--bid their time waiting for the moment to strike Mr. Yee and Wang enter into a torrid affair that begins to consume them both. Think of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion shift from Europe to Asia add in intensely explicit sex scenes and a completely unexpected ending and you have Lust Caution--a film that is soon to be considered a classic as well. Veteran actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen lead a fine cast of actors who together create this completely believable glimpse into Chinese culture during the dark days of Japanese occupation. Both give intense performances--he as the powerful emotionless Mr. Yee and she as his vapid shopping and Mah Jong-obsessed wife. But the most amazing performance is that of newcomer Wei Tang the Miss Universe finalist who makes her film debut in Lust Caution. Her fantastic face slim body and almost ethereal presence seem to blot out everyone else when she is on the screen; you can’t help but look at only her. Her transformation in the four-year span of the story is masterful. As she goes from a naïve young student to a mature woman whose physical obsession with a man she despises begins to overwhelm her. The ingénue proves that she is much more than just a pretty face. In fact she deserves an Academy Award nomination for her often subtle always fearless performance that is at the heart of the film. Ang Lee has a unique cinematic ability to begin a story very specific to a time a place and a culture and end with a universal tale that resonates across all societies and peoples. He did it beautifully with Sense and Sensibility Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as well as Brokeback Mountain and he’s done it again masterfully with Lust Caution. This newest film is an intense look at how war often causes an individual to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good yet it also explores another underlying theme: the idea that there is a never-ending battle between the sexes for emotional dominance within a sexual relationship. Ang Lee’s deft hand is evident in every frame including the incredibly explicit (and often violent) sex scenes that have given the film its NC-17 rating. But this is not pornography; every scene is necessary to the story showing us that using sex as a means to an end (no matter how noble that end) is a very dangerous game to play especially during wartime. Look for Ang Lee’s name to come up on the Academy’s list again this year as awards season kicks into high gear. He deserves every honor for this emotionally disturbing masterpiece.
Archeologist extraordinaire Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) and her team find a luminescent sphere located in an ancient underwater ruin in the Mediterranean Sea. Croft soon finds out the glowing orb is actually a map revealing the location of Pandora's Box a mythical box containing "life and death"--and a lot of really bad people including a Chinese crime syndicate boss named Chen Lo (Simon Yam) and his evil partner Jonathan Reiss (Ciaran Hinds)--want it. The battle is on as all three race for the box Croft to protect it and the others to turn it into a nifty doomsday weapon. The film strings one action sequence after the next as Croft fights evildoers in her around the world scavenger hunt for Pandora's box--and while some fit in most are gratuitous. There is Croft performing flips on her jet ski for example or Croft riding a motorcycle for what seems like an eternity through the hills in eastern China. The film plays out like the multilevel video game but unlike its PlayStation2 counterpart we have no control over the action. The extravagant stunts however cannot make up for the dry storyline that isn't gripping and ultimately fails to draw you in.
The concept behind Lara Croft is so fresh and intriguing that it's a shame Hollywood consistently traps the character in such shamefully bad storylines. As portrayed by Jolie Croft is the perfect female heroine; she's intelligent driven and tough and her life is absolutely fascinating. But while the first Tomb Raider movie gave us a wealth of information about Croft's character including her patronage education and what drives her as an explorer the sequel just hangs her out to dry. Too bad! If any actress can pull off a complex character like Croft it's definitely Jolie. Not only can she pull off the physical stunts but she also has developed little character quirks--i.e. the raised eyebrow quizzical look. But we never get a closer glimpse into Croft's life and the screenplay rarely allows her personality to emerge. There is an endearing scene in which Croft knocks on the door of a Chinese family and asks to borrow their television so she can hook up a video cam and send a message back home to England. The brief interaction Croft has with the little girl who sits and watches Croft in amazement is quite touching and it would have been nice to see more of this human side.
Dutch director Jan De Bont (Speed 2: Cruise Control) exhibits a flamboyant visual style here but Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life has little to offer other than its look. Most of the slick stunts for example are not only unnecessary but also unsound. One of the more preposterous action sequences has Croft slicing her arm underwater to attract a shark which she then punches in the nose before clutching on to its dorsal fin and pilfering a ride to the surface. Croft had just had her thigh torn open minutes earlier in a brawl. Couldn't she have squeezed some blood out of that wound rather than carve a new one? Never mind the fact that the shark then conveniently swims away and never comes back for a bite of its bleeding prey. But wait it gets worse: Croft then gets rescued while floating at sea by some Brits who show up on a Russian nuclear submarine. Little of it makes any sense. Shot in Greece Tanzania and Hong Kong De Bont shows some polished National Geographic-looking frame compositions that are unfortunately trapped within Dean Georgaris's lackluster screenplay.