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.
I long ago gave up hand-wringing about Hollywood’s preoccupation with remakes. Still the trailers for Harald Zwart’s remake of The Karate Kid the 1984 underdog classic that introduced such priceless phrases as “Wax on wax off” and “Sweep the leg!” into the pop-culture lexicon set me ill at ease. To me the film seemed little more than a high-profile vanity project for child star Jaden Smith son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett who for all we know gave him the movie as a Christmas gift a $40 million stocking-stuffer. Pillage my childhood memories if you must Hollywood but damnit at least show a little respect for the source material.
Much has changed in the update: Daniel Larusso is now Dre Parker; California’s San Fernando Valley is now Beijing China; Mr. Miyagi is now Mr. Han; and karate is now kung fu. Most of the story beats and thematic elements however are essentially the same. After his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer 12-year-old Dre (Smith) is forced to move from his native Detroit to the unfamiliar climes of Beijing where he’s besieged by a local group of pubescent fascists after being caught innocently flirting with a pretty schoolmate.
Dre’s tormentors all of whom practice a peculiarly sadistic version of kung fu taught at the neighborhood martial arts academy adhere vigorously to the “No weakness no pain no mercy” credo of their autocratic master. As such they’re not about to let their puny prey off with just one humiliating beatdown. During a subsequent ass-whooping Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) the eccentric maintenance man from Dre’s apartment building comes to the rescue fending off the ruthless urchins with some pretty fancy fighting moves of his own. After some cajoling Mr. Han reluctantly agrees to teach the child kung fu and several life lessons and inspirational montages later a resurgent Dre finally faces up to his adversaries at a climactic kung fu tournament.
The case for nepotism in this new Karate Kid is not without merit. Though allegedly 11 years old Smith doesn’t look a day over 10 and appears jarringly undersized for a 12-year-old. Seeing the baby-faced lad (he definitely takes after his mom in the looks department) get repeatedly brutalized by adolescent thugs twice his size gets uncomfortable as do later scenes of him training shirtless his torso the size of Chan’s forearm.
But it’s a minor quibble. In truth Smith surpasses his predecessor Macchio in both acting ability and martial arts proficiency. Whereas Daniel-San’s fighting scenes in the original Karate Kid require a suspension of disbelief that diminishes his eventual triumph at the All-Valley Karate Championships (Even as a kid I always suspected that the Cobra Kai kids were either sandbagging it or their sensai was the worst in-game coach since Jim Tressel) Smith’s moves are both more authentic and more athletic. Moreover he has the good sense not to collapse hysterically into a wailing heap at the slightest touch from an opponent as Macchio so famously did.
The Karate Kid is every bit an unabashed crowd-pleaser -- which isn’t necessarily such a bad thing in a summer movie season that has thus far given audiences precious little to cheer for. At two-and-a-half hours it takes far too long to get going and would have benefited from a more assured hand behind the camera. Zwart’s overemphasis on the bullying and fish-out-of-water elements becomes redundant and the dialogue and culture-clash jokes border on embarrassing at times. But the meat of the story the bond that forms between an unlikely kung fu teacher and his equally unlikely student is undeniably affecting.
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.