Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom called Staten Island, a young man named Robert Diggs steeped himself in two disciplines: the hip-hop culture of the greater New York area and the 1970s martial arts movies of Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio. Out of this fusion came the rap ensemble Wu-Tang Clan in the mid-1990s and — belatedly and not entirely regrettably — a new movie, “The Man With the Iron Fists,” starring, directed by, and co-written by Wu-Tang majordomo RZA.
The film, which wasn’t screened for critics, is lunatic, slipshod, absurdly violent, horribly acted, and borderline incomprehensible. It’s also more goofily entertaining than it has any right to be. This should not be confused with “good,” but it does put “The Man With the Iron Fists” close in grindhouse spirit to the movies that inspired it. If you’ve put your time in with Shaw Brothers classics like “The Kid With the Golden Arm” and “Crippled Avengers” — co-writer Eli Roth and presenter Quentin Tarantino have — you’ll probably feel you got your money’s worth in ham-handed homage.
RZA plays the improbable central character, the Blacksmith, a freed slave who has wound up in Jungle Village in late-1800s China. He forges swords, bides his time, and narrates in a dull monotone while the other characters — rival clans fighting over a shipment of imperial gold — decapitate each other with high kicks and extreme weaponry. Included in the passing parade are Rick Yune (“The Fast and the Furious”) as Zen Yi, a jut-jawed hero with deadly leather outerwear, Byron Mann (“Catwoman”) as the preening villain Silver Lion, pro wrestler Dave Bautista as a hulk whose body can turn to brass, and brief appearances by martial arts legends Gordon Liu and Chen Kuan-tai.
Lucy Liu amusingly paints her career further into a corner as Madame Blossom, conniving owner of the local gentleman’s club. By contrast, Jamie Chung (“Suckerpunch”), as a whore with a heart of gold, further proves her inability to act her way out of a shopping mall.
And what’s Russell Crowe doing here? Did he get drunk with RZA one night and sign something on a napkin? He plays a violent British bon vivant named Jack Knife, who helps the Blacksmith dole out vengeance. It’s implied he’s actually Jack the Ripper on vacation. That’s one of the few original ideas in a movie that could use many more.
Fight choreographer Corey Yuen gets off two solid scenes — a Yin/Yang-inspired battle involving twin warriors (Grace Huang and Andrew Lin) and a climactic donnybrook that lets Madame Blossom toss steel-tipped fans into various throats. The blood flows freely and the soundtrack even more so, with a mix of various Wu-Tang personnel, guest shots from Kanye West and the Black Keys, and a lot of repurposed soul, including a glorious lost classic from 1966, Mable John’s “Your Good Thing Is About to End.”
So RZA knows how to put together a soundtrack album. What he doesn’t know how to do yet is direct a movie: Hacked down from a rumored four-hour cut, “The Man With the Iron Fists” veers between capable imitation and amateur hour. But the filmmaker has plenty of friends who know how to turn schlock love into movie gold and someday so may he. Next time, though, he might think about staying behind the camera.