The Man With the Iron Fists


How RZA got Russell Crowe to agree to do this movie.

How RZA got Russell Crowe to agree to do this movie.

(2012) Martial Arts (Universal) RZA, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Dave Bautista, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, Byron Mann, Daniel Wu, Zhu Zhu, Gordon Liu, Andrew Ng, Kuan Tai Chen, Xue Jing Yao, Telly Liu, Wen-Jun Dong, Zhan De Re, Lu Kai, Jin Auyeung (MC Jin), Ka-Yan Leung, Liu Chang Jiang, Brian Yang, Hu Minnow, Eli Roth, Pam Grier, Grace Huang. Directed by RZA

Most film buffs have a soft spot for a particular era or style of movie, be it the film noir of the 40s, the psychedelic cinema of the 60s, the spaghetti Westerns of the 60s, the slasher horror films of the 80s – or something completely different. All of us have movies that we grew up with that appealed to us in some way and helped mold who we are.

For rapper RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, that would be the chop sockey films of Run Run Shaw and other producers from Hong Kong in the 70s. He wouldn’t be alone in that regard; folks like Quentin Tarantino (who is credited as a “presenter” here and helped produce), Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth (who co-wrote, produced, and appeared in a small role) all are fans of the style. Those who know RZA say he is a walking encyclopedia on the subject and certainly his music bears that out. Some thought it might only be a matter of time, ever since he got into acting, that he would create a film of his own.

Well, here it is. Like many of the original chop sockey films of the 70s, there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. A nameless blacksmith (RZA) – who happens to be black – creates weapons for the various rival clans of a small village. The village is a powderkeg waiting to explode and the arrival of a stranger named Jack Knife (Crowe) from England is all it takes. Soon the clans are at war and the Blacksmith will be drawn in not just as a maker of weapons, but as a fighter.

And that’s really it. And to be honest, the plot isn’t the most important thing about a movie like this, although I wouldn’t have minded a little more flesh on those bare bones. This is clearly a labor of love for RZA and reportedly he and co-writer Roth went into great detail into the mythology of the village, the types of weapons that he would create and the people who inhabited them. We don’t see much of the background except in dribs and drabs and I suppose that if he did go into detail, the movie would have ended up being a two-parter, or at least a single movie four hours long.

And to be fair, most folks who like the Wuxia movies and chop sockey films are all about the fights, and RZA recruited one of the best choreographers in the world – Corey Yuen – to work his film. And yes, those fights are pretty spectacular. However, the quick-cut editing and sumptuous visuals make it hard to follow those fights.

And the visuals are sumptuous, from the pink-hued cathouse where a good portion of the action takes place in, to the village streets and smithy which are period-friendly. It’s a great looking film but the editing again gives it a more modern feel than I think RZA was originally going for; or at least, he should have been.

RZA as a director shows promise; as an actor though, he should have stuck to directing. I’m not saying he’s a bad actor necessarily but he was wrong for the part. His personality onscreen is laidback and almost comatose; there’s just no excitement being generated by the lead character and that’s damn near fatal for any movie. If your audience isn’t connecting with your lead character, chances are they are changing the channel, walking out or otherwise finding something else to do with their time.

The characters have interesting names, weapons and personalities and some of the actors who inhabit them go over-the-top as well they should. Crowe and Lucy Liu as a conniving madam both seem to be having a good ol’ time with this; appearances by the legendary Gordon Liu, the equally legendary Pam Grier and Daniel Wu don’t hurt either. Rick Yune was also getting some heat but seemed to disappear way too early without explanation. Or at least, if there was one I wasn’t paying much attention by that time.

At an hour and a half this felt much longer than it really was and it’s a shame; there are a lot of elements here that are worthwhile had they been put together better. A direct-to-home video sequel was released earlier this year but I can’t say I have any desire whatsoever to see it and likely I won’t. I hope RZA continues to make movies; I just hope they’re better than this one.

WHY RENT THIS: A demented and occasionally entertaining cross between a spaghetti Western and a Hong Kong chop sockey.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A godawful mess. RZA doesn’t have the presence or the energy to be a lead.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it extreme) and sexuality (some of it extreme), a bit of foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first cut of the movie ran over four hours long and RZA at one point considering splitting the film into two parts but producer Eli Roth disagreed and thus the movie was edited down to its current 95 minute length.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains both the R-rated theatrical release and an unrated version that is about 12 minutes longer.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warrior’s Way
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Edge of Darkness


Edge of Darkness

Mel Gibson doesn't react too well to getting a speeding ticket from Officer Goldberg.

(2010) Suspense Thriller (Warner Brothers) Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Shawn Roberts, Bojana Novakovic, Frank Grillo, Jay O. Sanders, Denis O’Hare, David Aaron Baker, Damian Young, Caterina Scorsone. Directed by Martin Campbell

The somewhat bizarre story of Mel Gibson of late has been public knowledge almost to the point of overkill. I’m not going to comment one way or another oh the things he’s done or said – that is for others to do. I will say I have always admired him as an actor.

It’s been eight years since Gibson last assayed a leading role in a film. In this one, he plays Boston Police Detective Craven, who doesn’t have a whole lot in this life, but he does have a daughter, Emma (Novakovic) who is his whole existence. She works for a big corporation called Northmoor that is one of those companies that nobody seems to know what they do, only that they have big government contracts. Emma seems a bit unwell, with frequent nosebleeds and overall fatigue.

However, her condition gets a whole lot worse when a masked figure shouts “Craven” as the two of them are walking out of his house, then lets loose with a shotgun blast that kills her right in front of his eyes. With her death his life is completely shattered in an instant.

It is assumed that the shooter had meant to target the police detective instead of the girl, but it becomes evident that there is more going on than meets the eye and the detective in Craven knows something smells rotten. He decides to ask a few questions, shake a few trees, see what falls out. He starts with her boyfriend (Roberts) who seems terrified but points Craven in the direction of Northmoor. The detective talks with the unctuous corporate president Jack Bennett (Huston) and while that sets his cop instincts into overdrive, he’s still flailing around in the dark. That is, until he gets a visit from Jedburgh (Winstone), a mysterious sort who is one of those clandestine guys who knows more than anybody else.

Soon Craven is knee deep on eco-terrorists, government hitmen, corrupt politicians and attempts on his life. There is no subtlety going on here; he is a man with nothing to lose because he’s already lost everything. There is indeed no more dangerous a man than that.

This is a more than competent thriller. Director Martin Campbell has done Bond movies (the very respectable Casino Royale) as well as high-profile franchise pics (the upcoming Green Lantern) and has shown that he knows what he’s doing. He handles action scenes deftly, and spends enough time on character development without slowing the pacing down for it. That’s a pretty difficult balance to achieve, and Campbell makes it look effortless.

His star has a whole lot of baggage and I don’t just mean onscreen. Gibson’s popularity isn’t what it once was when he was the World’s Sexiest Man, whose smile made him a “right here, right now” choice for many a woman. His anti-Semitic and misogynistic tirades have landed him on tabloid news shows and brought him unwanted publicity. His career has suffered as a result – this high-profile film was far from a hit.

That’s a shame because it isn’t half-bad. It’s based on a BBC mini-series of the same name. While this one has been transplanted to American shores, it retains much of the suspense of the original. Helping out is a stellar support cast. Winstone is one of the best in the business, and he sinks his teeth into this role. His scenes with Gibson are some of the film’s best moments.

Huston plays the smooth Bennett like a cobra, mesmerizing us before he strikes to inject a lethal dose of venom. Huston excels at these sorts of roles and he could have easily phoned this one in, but he doesn’t. He makes Bennett more than the standard corporate cliché, and that helps elevate the movie somewhat.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of clichés here and the movie gets bogged down in its own plot intricacies from time to time. Be that as it may, this is a good thriller that has enough entertainment value that if you can look beyond Gibson’s off-screen troubles, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

WHY RENT THIS: Gibson is still very much a star, although a tarnished one. A very respectable cast; scenes between Winstone and Gibson are top-notch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The concept has been done to death and the movie doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the table. While there are a few good scares, mostly it’s just gruesome.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of violence, some of it gruesome. There’s also plenty of good Irish Catholic Boston cop-style foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Martin Campbell also directed the mini-series on which this is based.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the British mini-series giving viewers a good frame of reference.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $81.1M on a $80M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Obsessed

Sukiyaki Western Django


Sukiyaki Western Django

Six-shooters are for pussies.

(First Look) Hideaki Ito, Koishi Sato, Yusuke Iseya, Quentin Tarantino, Masanobu Ando, Takaaki Ishibashi, Yoshino Kimura, Teruyuki Kagawa. Directed by Takashi Miike

Some movies go beyond description. Any attempt to do so is to invite failure for these movies are so innovative, so out there that no description of the plot or the film can really do it justice.

Sukiyaki Western Django is just such a film. Japanese director Miike, one of the most prolific and crazed directors of the last decade, does his take on the Italian western of Sergio Leone and his ilk and filters it through the eyes of…well, I’m not really sure.

To try and summarize the plot is pointless. Let’s just say that it is loosely based on the 1966 Sergio Corbucci movie Django but also on the Japanese historical epic novel “The Tale of Heike,” whose warring factions are used here – the Red (Heike) and the White (Genji) clans. They are both seeking a treasure in the hills of Nevada, which look suspiciously Japanese in a mining town that is entirely populated by Japanese and has a striking architectural mix of Old West saloons and pagodas.

In the middle of all this is a mysterious gunslinger (Ito) whose participation would tip the balance in favor of one clan or the other, so he is vigorously pursued by both. Tarantino shows up as a legendary gunslinger (mostly in old age make-up to the point where he’s barely recognizable) who appreciates a fine dish of sukiyaki as long as its not too sweet.

There are shoot-outs – a ton of them – and plenty of blood, with a sense of the whimsical. In the first post-prologue scene, one of the nameless thugs gets a hole blown in his stomach, and while he stares at the gaping wound in astonishment an arrow is shot through the hole to impale another thug sitting on a horse behind the first thug.

Miike has an impressive visual style and he lets it go wild here. The prologue takes place on what is obviously a set with a stylized backdrop that recalls Japanese anime as it might have been done on the backdrop of a saloon stage. Flowers give bloom to…fetuses. An eight-armed animated gunslinger turns up from time to time.

The action is frenetic. Miike wisely avoids dwelling too much on the finer points of the plot and instead concentrates on the mayhem. Now, keep in mind that twenty minutes were cut out of the Japanese version which I haven’t seen; it’s possible that there may have been more emphasis on the story there. I’m not sure I’d be able to handle it without my head exploding.

The cast, who mostly don’t speak a word of English, deliver their lines in phonetically learned English, making for odd pronunciations and emphases. Think of it as on-set dubbing; while the dialogue matches the actors mouth movements, it contributes to the overall surreality of the movie.

If I were to tell you that this would be a dangerous movie to watch while on acid, that would first off imply that I would have first-hand knowledge of acid, which I do not. Secondly, that would be as close to a one-sentence description as I can possibly come to this movie and in all likelihood the fairest and most accurate description of it. Those who love movies that are visceral and have a complete absence of intellectual properties are going to find this their kind of meal. Those who don’t like roller coaster rides on their DVD player should probably give this a miss.

WHY RENT THIS: This samurai spaghetti Western is so over-the-top that all you can do is admire it. Fans of Tarantino’s best should flock to this one.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit of a mish-mash and can be hard to follow from time to time. The thick Japanese accents are nearly indecipherable for some of the cast.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of gunfights, much slow motion blood and a rape. Definitely not family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you look closely at the arm of the mechanical wheelchair that Tarantino is using, the duck hood ornament from Deathproof which he directed is visible.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Mostly standard making-of stuff, except that it’s in Japanese with subtitles. In any case, any opportunity to get into the mind of Miike is well worth the visit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: CSA: The Confederate States of America