There ought to be a name for the sub-genre of east Asian kung-fu movies which are actually westerns but with nun-chucks instead of six-shooters.
An example of this sort of film is the new “Man with the Iron Fists.” And in it, just as in movies of yore, the story begins with a lone stranger riding into town.
Except, in retrospect, maybe this isn’t quite the way the story starts. Oh, an Englishman played by Russell Crowe does ride into town at the beginning of things. But writer-director-star Rza (a.k.a. Robert Diggs Jr.) is simply putting what he advertised out front by introducing Crowe right away.
We almost immediately get into a tea house of the unclothed moons, run by a Madame played by Lucy Liu, too. But the characters played by the two big stars in the film are not necessarily central to the action. Rza’s blacksmith character, a clan prince, a usurper called Silver Lion, and even a big fellow who resembles the professional wrestler Ryback are all more likely to figure in any significant scene than are the Englishman or the Madame.
This diffusion of point of view is one of the movie’s problems. In most ways, though, it is too simple an entertainment to go very far wrong.
The head of the Lion clan, a group of sword-wielding guys with teased 80s Rock Star haircuts, has been killed while protecting a shipment of gold. The Usurper has hidden the gold in a vault hidden in a mirror funhouse under the bordello of a small town. He hires a gigantic thug whose flesh turns into metal when he is attacked.
The governor has sent troops (with a gatling gun we never get to see in operation) to retrieve the gold. But—for reasons never made clear—a bunch of other people try to get it back for the government first. There is a martial and marital arts team called The Gemini, for example. As they wait for their food in a restaurant, they are ambushed and killed by Lion clan fighters. The prince arrives to avenge his father but is knocked out during a fight and is hidden for a time as he recuperates.
Closer to the climax of the movie, the hookers all go black widow and attack the Lions, but are vanquished. The town’s blacksmith has both his arms chopped off by metal boy when he refuses to say where their mutual lover is hiding.
But the blacksmith tells the Englishman how to cast hardened steel forearms which are then bolted onto his stumps. Then the blacksmith, the prince, and the Englishman (with a weapon which is part Bowie knife, part scissors, and part pistol) join forces, apparently in an attempt to kill Silver Fish, bronze man, and their minions before the government troops can.
So there’s quite a bit of fighting, including wire-assisted swooping. And there are boudoir scenes (the Englishman likes to take on three girls at once). And there’s some gore, including some blood spurting. And nothing ever seems real or intentionally comic.
The limited sets are colorful, as are the costumes. The hair styles are a hoot. But by the time we get around to counting barbering as one of the films great strengths, it seems obvious that not enough that’s new and original appears in the movie.
Luckily “The Man with the Iron Fists” has pace. So it is over before it can become dull. Not that it wasn’t headed in that direction before the formerly lone stranger rides out of town.