By Will Leitch
In 1995, Quentin Tarantino, skinny, wired, at the absolute peak of his power and influence, showed up at the MTV Movie Awards to give a lifetime achievement award to Jackie Chan. This is just how huge Tarantino was at the time: MTV allowed him to take 10 minutes of its airtime to give a career-capping award to someone almost no one watching had ever heard of.
I was one of them. OK, a sophomore in college, I’d heard of Jackie Chan, but the self-medicated cinematic education I’d been downloading into my brain through the free laserdiscs at the University of Illinois undergraduate library hadn’t quite made it to Hong Kong action cinema yet. So watching Tarantino fete this guy felt almost like a prank, yet another postmodern in-joke, before we realized that Tarantino was about to turn postmodern in-jokes into, for better or worse, the most obsessively personal and inward career you can imagine. (Say what you will about that guy, but he follows his inner muse as much as any director on earth; there’s nothing removed or detached about him at all.) I wasn’t sure what Tarantino was up to. Then I watched Tarantino’s tribute.
(I miss when things were scored by White Zombie. 1995 was the best.)
I was immediately transfixed, and how couldn’t I be? My favorite bit is when Chan and an opponent kick each other in the back at the same time and then hide so the other doesn’t know how much it hurts. Chan’s first “American” movie, Rumble In The Bronx (in which “The Bronx” is played by Vancouver and is surprisingly mountainous) came out the next year in the States, which led to more people checking out the films that Tarantino and others had fallen in love with, from Police Story to Supercop to, my favorite, The Legend of Drunken Master. Then Rush Hour came, and suddenly Jackie Chan was arguably a bigger star in America than he’d ever been anywhere else. This all led many, including me, to discover a whole new world of martial arts cinema, John Woo and Ringo Lam and Sonny Chiba and Jet Li. Tarantino has been called the disciple of Hong Kong cinema, and he absolutely deserves the designation.
I’m not an expert in the field, but I’m relatively fluent in it if only through osmosis of the last decade-and-a-half of movies, and thus I’ll confess, I find RZA’s The Man With The Iron Fists doubly baffling. RZA, obviously a longtime fan of the genre, has made a film that assumes no one has ever seen a kung fu movie before. There’s nothing new added, nothing inventive or clever, nothing out of the ordinary except for the fact that it has RZA in it. The movie is, bizarrely, almost entirely barren of humor, which is just deadly for a film like this. (Only Russell Crowe, playing an English soldier with a taste for knives, seems to realize he’s in a ridiculous movie and acts accordingly. Honestly, the RZA-Black Keys video has about 15 more laughs than this whole film.)
The whole thing isn’t much more than a vanity project for RZA, him imagining how much fun he would have as the center of a martial arts film. He plays everything so straight, though, that it’s less a smart modern revisiting and more an exercise in wish fulfillment. I’ve seen RZA: He’s funny! But he’s too busy trying really hard to be an action star to dare make light of anything. Why so serious, RZA?
RZA has said he learned how to direct movies by watching Tarantino on the set of Kill Bill, so I might suggest to him that he take better notes, more notes, or both; his action scenes are blurry and so quickly-cut that you can’t tell what’s happening, a major problem for the type of movie he’s trying to make. He also casts Lucy Liu in a somewhat similar role—in an almost exact setting, in fact—to what she played in that film, with considerably inferior results. It’s a Tarantino-esque chopsocky film made with 1/100th of Tarantino’s skill. It’s about as unwatchable as that sounds.
But the worst part of all this is how familiar it all seems. A movie like this starring RZA (and Russell Crowe!) might have felt revolutionary, almost dangerous, 16 years ago. Now, though, it feels rote: It’s just another Hong Kong martial arts ripoff movie. (Albeit one filmed entirely in China, which I guess it wins points for?) This is all well-tread ground at this point, and if you don’t bring anything new to it, there’s no reason to do it at all. I’d recommend watching last year’s 13 Assassins, or hey, just watching that old Tarantino-Chan clip again. Just as then, it will inspire you to go back and check out the real thing. You can score it to White Zombie if you want.
Grierson and Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow them on Twitter at @griersonleitch.