The Man with the Iron Fists 2 review

RZA has always seemed to be preoccupied with empire building. As a founding member and essentially the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA has not just shepherded that group to success but also been responsible for many of its offshoots and several ancillary businesses that stretch beyond the music industry.

One area that has always interested him is cinema and, in particular, martial arts cinema. Indeed, the group’s name came from the 1983 film Shaolin and Wu Tang.

So it was after a few minor roles in a variety of pictures that RZA had his shot at a long-held dream in 2012, when he directed The Man with the Iron Fists, a martial arts film which he also starred in and co-wrote with Eli Roth. And naturally, he also scored the film, with assistance from composer Howard Drossin. While the music was superb, the same could not be said for much else about the project.

The Man with the Iron Fists was a messy, bloated feature, so stuffed with unnecessary and confusing mythology that the plot seemed to mostly be an afterthought. Despite RZA’s love for the martial arts genre there was little to endear the film to his fellow fans. But it did, at least, feature a great deal of imagination and a definite sense of lurid, gonzo fun. This excess gave the film what character it had, and was far more present in RZA’s director’s cut, as released on Blu-ray and digitally.

The film did not become anything like as successful as many involved with the project had expected – there was even some talk of it being a crossover with Django Unchained at one point -it looks like it just about made back its budget in cinemas and no doubt did well as home entertainment. And so we have the inevitable sequel.

The Man with the Iron Fists 2 picks up where the last film left off, with RZA’s title character – a blacksmith with metallic hands – looking for a more peaceful life, and to atone for his sins. But, of course, this doesn’t last long and he’s back punching and smashing his way through opponents and furniture before the opening credits are over.

Using a model that proved fruitful for any number of westerns, kung fu movies and samurai pictures, the story of The Man with the Iron Fists 2 sets up a scenario in which an evil person uses their position of power to abuse a group of villagers, only for a hero to then stumble in and rescue them.

But the blacksmith, Thaddeus, is not actually the protagonist in this second story. This time, the spotlight falls on Dustin Nguyen as Li, one of the few people willing to stand up to the villainous Master Ho (Carl Ng).

It could be argued that The Man with the Iron Fists 2 takes a step forward with its widely multi racial cast – including actors from Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand – though it sadly seems more likely that the producers expect Western audiences will not notice, maybe not even be able to discern, the variety of Asian heritages on display in the setting of nineteenth century China.

Considering RZA’s love of the martial arts genre and his associations with modern Asian martial arts cinema – he even played a villain in the patchy but enjoyable Tom Yum Goong 2 – it is somewhat surprising that the choice for director here is Roel Reine.

Reine may have made a number of action movies, including a large number of straight to video sequels, but he’s never displayed the necessary skills to to showcase this particular type of action. And whilst Reine, who was cinematographer as well as director, does manage to shoot The Man with the Iron Fists 2 in a somewhat matter of fact fashion, with room in the frames for us to see what is actually happening, he does also have a tendency to wobble the camera, or insert unnecessary, distracting zooms and cuts.

RZA is not the most graceful physical performer, and in positioning himself as the character who essentially sweeps in and rescues the villagers, he seems to have set himself up for a fall. In order for this to work and be convincing he would have to be the best in the room, the fighter who others fear and the audience are astounded by. But he’s ultimately overshadowed by the supporting cast and ends up looking a little awkward, especially in the film’s extended action climax.

As you may have expected, The Man with the Iron Fists 2 features another shining score and selection of soundtrack choices. The needle drops in both films tend to be incredibly incongruous but frequently manage to work surprisingly well. Even Ennio Morricone‘s overused Ecstasy of Gold adds an effective sense of gravitas and scope to a sequence that really doesn’t deserve it.

The Black Keys and RZA’s The Baddest Man Alive is repeated from the first film, and it really is a cracking theme song, both evocative and highly memorable. You can hear it in the player above, and we’ll no doubt be hearing it again when the seemingly inevitable Man with the Iron Fists 3 makes its way onto VOD in a couple of years time.

I strongly suspect that RZA’s not done with this character or his cinematic empire building, so let’s hope for the next instalment RZA gets a better script and hooks up with a director more suited to the genre. Surely he has Prachya Pinkaew‘s number?

The Man with the Iron Fists 2 is out on Blu-ray, VOD and on US Netflix right now. The UK DVD and Blu-ray are set for release on May 18th.