A far too low-key RZA stars as a freed slave and blacksmith in 19th century China. No, I’m serious. He makes weapons for the two warring clans, and is trying to save enough money to free his girlfriend Lady Silk (the gorgeous Jamie Chung) from continuing to work in a brothel run by Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu). Things get complicated when Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le) turn up to fuck shit up, looking for supposed hidden treasure and a mercenary named Zen Yi (Rick Yune). Zen Yi is son of Gold Lion, the leader whom Silver and Bronze Lion have overthrown. When the blacksmith refuses to tell them where Zen Yi is, his hands are removed from the rest of his body. He is nursed back to health by a mysterious, possibly psychotic, and frankly pervy English brothel patron named Jack the Knife (Russell Crowe), and his hands are replaced by huge iron fists. Now joined by Zen Yi, the trio are ready for battle, but Silver and Bronze Lion also have the hulking assassin Brass Body (Dave ‘Batista’ Bautista), who is very aptly named. Meanwhile, the very strange Jack the Knife proves to be much more than meets the eye.
This 2012 homage to Asian martial arts classics of the 70s and early 80s is directed and co-written by Wu-Tang Clan member RZA, and it’s a shame that he also stars in it. This is a lot of fun and an impressive directorial debut, but RZA is a terrible actor who can barely even enunciate. That latter point is especially unfortunate, because he also made the dumbarse decision to narrate the film too. I’m not much of a fan of hippity hop music, nor including it in a more historical setting, but the rap music here strangely isn’t all that inappropriate for what is essentially a Shaw Brothers update anyway.
The violent opening credits are good fun in a similar Shaw Brothers way too. Yes, this is RZA’s version of “Kill Bill”, but with much less spaghetti western vibes (aside from maybe Russell Crowe), and more “Monkey Magic” with a touch of “Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain”. It’s much more fantastical than Tarantino’s martial arts homages.
Russell Crowe, having a whale of a time, is absolutely hilarious and I think he’s meant to be. This is certainly a better outing for him than “The Quick and the Dead” at any rate. Lucy Liu is perfectly (type) cast in an underdeveloped role, and former WWE Superstar Dave Bautista (Batista) is also spot-on as a seemingly indestructible monster badass. In addition to having the most unrealistic physique in wrestling history, here he shows lots of presence and charisma. Rick Yune, whose character probably deserved more depth, would’ve made for a better lead actor than RZA and has some seriously cool weapons. RZA, sharing Tarantino’s affection for blaxploitation legend Pam Grier casts her in a cameo role as a maid, but seemingly older and much larger, I took a while to recognise her. Wow. Look out for Shaw Brothers mainstay (and co-star of both “Kill Bill” films) Gordon Liu as a monk (or abbot) in the scene where RZA shaves his head, ala Liu himself in “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”. Cute.
The ultra-violent finale is lots of fun, especially the bit where Lucy Liu kicks a guy’s head off. The whole set-piece is by far the film’s highlight, including a nice nod to “Enter the Dragon” and its hall of mirrors finale. Fight choreographer Corey Yuen (“Lethal Weapon 4”, “The Expendables” and director of “DOA: Dead or Alive”) definitely earns his keep here.
If it weren’t for RZA’s ego and lack of talent and charisma, this might’ve made it into my top 10 of 2012. Oh if only Michael Jai White, a solid and charismatic actor and terrific fighter, had been cast. As is, it’s just outside. If Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films were better than many of the films they referenced, then this film is as good as most of them, but probably not better. Warts and all, though, it’s damn good fun, even if I can understand why I might be the only one to like it. It’s no “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”, “One Armed Boxer vs. The Flying Guillotine” or even “Big Trouble in Little China” if you want a somewhat post-modern cultural pastiche, but it’ll do. ‘Presented’ by Quentin Tarantino, the film is scripted by RZA and “Hostel” director Eli Roth (My guess is that the disembowelment was Roth’s input).