I consider myself a pretty big fan of Martial Arts films, though I haven’t seen as many as I should have. I’ve noticed that I tend to like the older Shaw Bros. films. Films like 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, FIVE DEADLY VENOMS, and MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE. RZA, mostly known for being a member of The Wu-Tang Clan, has been pretty clear that he’s a kung-fu junkie. He became friends with Quentin Tarantino while scoring a little bit of KILL BILL. Somewhere down the line, RZA became interested in trying his hand at directing a film. So he came up with his own kung-fu feature for himself to star in. Now, Tarantino put his name on the film just to help him out, but he DID NOT direct the movie. This is RZA’s baby all the way. Soon as I heard about the project, I became very excited. Knowing how big of a fan the rap star was of the genre, I knew that he would know what a good story was, and how awesome fight scenes are filmed. Hooray for kung fu!
Well, I’m not going to beat around the bush. For those of you who’ve been looking forward to a totally awesome and crazy-ass martial arts flick, prepare to be epically disappointed. Because this movie SUCKS! It really pains me to say it too. I really, really, really, really wanted to love this movie… but it starts off on a bad note and never ever hits a right one.
I want to explain the plot, but it’s kind of pointless, not to mention borderline incoherent. I’ll give it a whirl though…. okay, here goes: Taking place in Ancient china, a bad guy named Silver Lion kills Zen-Yi’s father, now he wants revenge. We find out that there’s a bunch of gold that is going to be kept at a whorehouse in Jungle Village. An English gentleman (or, I mean, slob) named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) come to the brothel demanding booze and 3 whores to start off with, then he kills a fat Asian dude by gutting him. YAY! There’s RZA, who plays the blacksmith who’s dating one of the whores. So, I guess, everyone wants the gold and there’s lots of fighting. A big dude who looks like a wrestler turns into brass and beats up the blacksmith pretty good, then cuts his arms off. For no reason whatsoever, Jack Knife helps the blacksmith put deadly iron fists where his hands used to be. Oh yeah, Zen-Yi shows up and the 3 become buddies and decide to kill all the bad guys. There’s also a really awful black and white flashback sequence showing how the blacksmith used to be a slave. Pretty dumb.
Now, don’t let that synopsis fool you, the movie actually makes even less sense. It opens with one of the most sloppiest title sequences ever. It starts off with a fight that is constantly interrupted by freeze-frames for the titles. That told me one thing. What we were seeing on-screen must not be that important if they’re just going to run the titles over it. I guess the story is kind of simple, but RZA’s narration made things needlessly complicated. Characters would show up and do things for no apparent reason. The biggest offender was Jack Knife. He is introduced as a villain, as he kills people without mercy and treats woman like shit. Then he dresses up as an Asian man for no fucking reason (for only about 36 seconds). I didn’t get it at all. At first I thought maybe he was supposed to be a different character, but no, RZA just has no clue what the fuck he’s doing. And then when Jack Knife turns good, it doesn’t make sense. But that’s just one of the characters. The others are just as convoluted if not more so.
The acting: Okay, I know that the RZA wrote and directed the movie, but that doesn’t meant he had to be in it, right? This movie is one big ego trip for the rapper. And no, this mother fucker can’t act. I almost think he knew it, because he’s the only actor that hardly gets a close-up, which was weird since he was supposed to be the central character. In fact, no one is good in this movie. RZA is so bad, but everyone else is worse. I don’t know why he cast better actors in the other parts, cause it’s almost like he told everyone in the cast that they couldn’t be better than him. That’s why he’s the best performer in the movie. Lucy Liu barely has anything to do as the owner of the brothel. She does get to kill people at the end, but her performance is lifeless. Rick Yune is dull and gives constantly flat line readings throughout. Byron Mann plays Silver Lion, and is embarrassingly hammy. David Bautista is the Brass dude, and he can’t even keep a straight face.. He just has a constant look on his face like he farted, and is going to keep it a secret from everyone else. Russell Crowe…. what the fuck?!? I have no clue what happened here. He’s probably considered one of the best working actors today, and he delivers a Razzie worthy performance. He looks fat, mumbles his way through his lines, and looks like he might fall asleep at any given moment. He is given some of the most embarrassing dialogue to utter too. I have no idea what drew him to this project. Maybe he thought Tarantino was actually going to direct it, signed on the dotted line, and then when he found out that some rapper was going to direct it, he couldn’t leave the movie cause he signed a contract. That’s the only excuse for him I can think of. Oh yeah, kung fu legend Gordon Liu is completely wasted (why is he not fighting?!?) and so is Pam Grier, who has about 15 seconds of screentime.
I respect RZA’s passion for martial arts films, which is why I was rooting for him. But, as this film proves, he’s NOT a filmmaker. He can hardly make one shot match to the next. Corey Yuen’s fight choreography looks like it might contain some cool moves and wire work, but it’s hard to tell as RZA can’t even frame one shot right. He tries to do ambitious things, like having an overhead shot through the brothel as everyone is having dirty sex, or using split-screen techniques, but he doesn’t employ them well or correctly. I felt bad watching this, cause I know how hard he worked on this film, but the end result is disastrous. The script, also co-written by Eli Roth, is incomprehensible. And the dialogue….. I don’t know what kind of tone they were going for. Was it supposed to be simplistically bad-ass or unintentionally funny? However, it turned out to be neither. I didn’t laugh, I mostly just groaned a lot. To also make the movie seem more awkward, the RZA puts a shitload of rap music throughout the fighting scenes, which don’t fit at all. Can’t say I’m surprised since he’s a rapper, but I was hoping that he would be try to expand his horizons. But there is some of the musical score that actually sounded cool, and had a spaghetti western feel to it. That’s probably the nicest thing I can say about this movie.
There are lots of fights, but like I said, they’re not filmed in a way that one can enjoy watching them. There is tons of gore and bloody violence. Some of the kills were clever. And it’s a mix of practical effects and CGI. Guess which looked better…… that’s right! The practical effects. KNB does some pretty cool makeup effects. like blood shooting out of arms, heads and necks (like KILL BILL). But the CGI stuff looks like shit! And when that dude turns into that brass man….. well, that looked about as convincing as anything in MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION (which means it looked like puke!). If you’re really craving gore, then it’s here. But there are so many better movies that are gruesome.
I understand that this is supposed to be a throwback to B-genre films, but it doesn’t succeed in either emulating them or paying homage to them. If RZA really liked those old school flicks so much, why did he modernize it and put all that CGI shit in there? If you like your ultra violence mixed with the acting about as equivalent to the DOUBLE DRAGON movie and the direction about as good as the second MORTAL KOMBAT, then you’re in for a treat. As for everyone else…. this is going to be extremely painful to sit through. It’s only a little more than an hour and a half, but it felt at least an hour longer. Sorry RZA. Nice try. But next time, maybe you should do your homework and REALLY study the filmmaking of those martial arts flicks, or any movie at all, since this doesn’t really resemble one. This is easily one of the worst films of the year. ½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language, and brief drug use.
– Running time: 1hr 35min.