What I Knew Going In / What I Was Expecting
People punch each other to death.
That was all.
The Plot Summary
The movie opens somewhere in 19th century China with Thaddeus (RZA), the titular man with fists made out of iron, hanging out on a floating structure. (I don't know what you call these things. Building boats? They're little huts constructed on pontoon foundations that float around in a river.) Through narration, he explains that he's a blacksmith on a quest to "cleanse his soul" after some unnamed hardship and grief. He intends to achieve this by finding the legendary Wu Chi temple, where a river of "golden nectar" runs with unlimited chi.
This is the first of several times Thaddeus explains that chi is a metaphysical energy, as if he's not sure whether or not we'll buy into it. Whatever, guy. I'm watching a movie about a guy with fists made out of iron. You don't have to sell me on shit.
So, some toughies show up - I guess they were leftover villains from Part 1 - and Thaddeus punches them to death. Then, for no apparent reason except exhaustion, I guess, he slumps over and falls into the river. His body floats away and that's the last we'll see of him for awhile.
Cut to Tsai Fu village, a small mountain town built next to a silver mine. The people of Tsai Fu have been having nothing but problems lately. For one, all their daughters keep showing up dead, apparently robbed of their chi. For another, they've been subjugated and oppressed by a group of mercenaries called the Scorpions. The Scorpions' leader, Master Ho (Carl Ng) is a ruthless, violent monster who somehow owns the mine (I'm not clear on how he acquired the deed, but I assume kicking was involved) and exploits the villagers as slaves to dig inside it.
A good chunk of time is spent showing how cruel and terrible Master Ho is. He's built up as a pretty good villain and does a fair bit of mustache-twirling as he goes through the checklist of nefarious deeds: beating starving miners, interrupting funerals, talking creepily to his harem, and, oh yeah, owning slaves.
The Mayor of Tsai Fu (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is helpless to fight back against Ho - partly this is because he's too timid, and partly because he has no legs. In place of his leadership, there is a smoldering rebellion brewing, led by Li Kung (Dustin Nguyen), a calm, mild-mannered family man. Kung is something of a spiritual leader of the miners and has been trying to make life better through long-term, cautious advances. His brother is much more of a hothead, though, and thinks they should just start kicking ass.
Enter the Duel system. I'm not totally clear on the rules, but it seems like they're supposed to be this:
1) If you've got a grievance, then you challenge the offending party to a Duel. Any miner can challenge any Scorpion to a Duel, and vice-versa.
2) If you reject the Duel, you get called a coward, but nothing else bad happens to you.
3) If you accept the Duel and win, then the Challenger has to shut up about whatever objection they had.
4) If you accept the Duel and lose, then you have to acknowledge that you were wrong and you now owe the Challenger a favor. Said favor will probably be to stop doing whatever it was that pissed them off in the first place.
This system of justice might actually work if it was ever respected, but as far as I can tell, Ho and the Scorpions never honor it. We see at least three Duels in the movie, and every single one ends with the Scorpions backing out in some way. Which leads me to wonder - why even have a Duel system at all? It's just a really formal way of punching somebody in the head when you're upset with them.
Anyway, Kung's brother challenges the Scorpions to a general duel for the crime of being assholes, and they set up a Tough Guy to fight him. When he comes out, it seems like you're about to watch Kung's brother get his ass handed to him, but then Kung's brother beats the guy up without a problem. So, whatever. The villagers rejoice and everybody goes to bed.
The next day, Thaddeus finally comes back into the movie. Kung's daughter finds him floating in the river and rescues him, and then nurses him back to health. There's the briefest possible amount of time spent on a bonding sequence, and then Kung's brother is found murdered.
Kung realizes that he has to get justice now, so he challenges the Scorpions and beats the shit out of two of their guys. The miners cheer, and then everybody goes back home again. Kung realizes he can't go back to the way things used to be, so he starts plotting a coup. He asks Thaddeus if he'll help, but Thaddeus is noncommittal.
Shortly after, Kung challenges Ho directly. The two square off and have a pretty decent fight, and once again, Kung gets the upper hand. Unfortunately, due to an injury he sustained before the fight - one of Ho's men "illegally" cut him in the stomach before he showed up for the duel - he falters at the last minute and Ho is about to deliver a death blow.
That's when Thaddeus steps into the movie proper and comes to Kung's aid. He blocks Ho's final attack, and in retaliation, Ho has both him and Kung arrested. While they're imprisoned, Kung realizes that Ho is out to find a secret alternate cavern entrance to the river of Golden Nectar, and they have to stop him before it's too late. The Mayor breaks them out of their prison, and we're gearing up for a big, epic showdown between the miners and the Scorpions.
Now, buckle up to follow along with me on this next part, because it's the kind of plot twist that's so baffling and ridiculous that you might think you just misread. The secret turn at the end of the movie is that the Mayor is actually Lord Pi, a nobleman who once tried to harvest all the chi from the Golden Nectar river. The monks of Wu Chi, who are responsible for protecting the Nectar, cut off his legs as punishment. Ever since, Lord Pi has assumed a quiet identity and preyed on the daughters of Tsai Fu, sucking out their chi to keep his miserable life going just a little longer until Ho, who has been working for Pi all along, can find the hidden entrance to the Nectar. He eventually is able to get to the river thanks to new iron legs that Thaddeus smiths for him in a single night right before the climactic showdown.
This means several things must be true:
1) The Mayor has been killing girls for ages, and somehow nobody thought it was suspicious that he never wanted to assign a task force to stop the murders;
2) The Mayor only broke Thaddeus and Ho free from their prison because he somehow knew that Thaddeus had the capability to craft him new legs out of iron; and
3) If a wandering blacksmith who could create chi-powered artificial limbs hadn't floated into his village by total chance, then he would have been totally screwed.
But whatever. The Mayor is Lord Pi. Fine.
Thaddeus and Kung team up and kill both Ho and Pi while the rest of the miners kill all the Scorpions. When everything settles down, Kung takes over as the new mayor and Thaddeus leaves so he can keep wandering and searching for inner peace.
What I Liked
I'm sure some people will call it cheap, but I thought this was a really gorgeous movie. The locations are beautiful, the set design is fantastic, and the cinematography makes use of nice, wide, sweeping shots to let you soak in all the detail.
The action scenes are a lot of fun even though they're kinda predictable. Kung gets into a lot of great fights and the final battle sequence has some pretty cool moments, not the least of which is when one of the more prominent Scorpions is hit by an explosive arrowhead and bursts open like a watermelon.
I generally liked the story. I appreciate an action movie that decides to make its villains as truly horrendous and terrible as they possibly can be - after all, if you're going to violently kill half your cast by the end, you might as well make them really deserve it.
And the music was pretty good throughout.
Overall, there was a lot to like here. I would say it's a great power / revenge fantasy B movie, but....
What I Didn't Like
There's mainly two problems with this movie that bring it down.
The first is the acting. It's not universally bad, but it's definitely a weak spot. RZA does an okay job, but there's a few scenes where he just seems out of it - like he just woke up or something. Dustin Nguyen and Carl Ng are the only real strong points, and almost everybody else is overacting or sleepwalking. Most of the bit players are frankly terrible.
I can forgive this for the most part because it doesn't necessarily hamper the action. The movie has a decent pulpy / melodramatic feel to it that works to its benefit partly because the acting is so overblown, so it's not enough to sink the movie by itself.
Unfortunately, where it really falters is in the execution of all its elements. It's a simple case of simplification.
What this is trying to be is a straightforward "stranger wanders into a town filled with criminals and cleans up the place" B movie. Like Yojimbo. And it's almost there, but then it forgets what it's trying to do and you end up with a pseudo-epic where you can't ever fully connect with the protagonists and the antagonists never fully get a chance to be truly menacing.
For example: RZA is barely in it. Thaddeus shows up for a five minute intro and then literally goes to sleep for the next thirty minutes. When he does get reintroduced, we've spent so much time following Li Kung's storyline that it seems impossible to care about Thaddeus anymore. Almost no effort is made for Thaddeus to become an element in the miners' lives and barely any time is spent allowing him to build a rapport with the cast. The result is that it feels like you're watching this really nifty movie about a tyrant who's enslaved a village, but any time there's some tension, RZA pops his head on screen and says, "Didya see my fists? Pretty cool, huh?"
There's also a lot of wasted potential with the villains. For the first half of the movie, they build Ho and the Scorpions up as this terrible, menacing force. Ho is cruel and barbaric and you really come to hate him, and you really feel the oppression of the villagers....
...until Li Kung's brother beats one of them up. And then suddenly they just don't seem that tough anymore. From that point on, any time there's a challenge or a duel between the Scorpions and the villagers, the Scorpions lose. Even Ho can't beat Kung in a fair fight, and up to this point he was terrifying.
It gets even worse when they just throw him out the window altogether and Lord Pi shows up out of nowhere to become the main villain. Who cares?
It's such an easy fix. All you have to do is cut it down to just one hero (either Thaddeus or Kung) and one villain. Here's what it should have been:
- Thaddeus wakes up in the village way sooner. Li Kung gives him sanctuary because Kung is a nice dude who preaches peace and love.
- Thaddeus helps the miners get out of scrapes here and there, but we keep seeing Master Ho being evil.
- Thaddeus befriends Li Kung's daughter.
- Li Kung's brother can't take it any more and challenges Ho. He loses and is killed brutally.
- Li Kung is honor-bound to challenge Ho. Thaddeus tries to talk him out of it, but Li Kung insists.
- Li Kung fights and is almost killed, but Thaddeus steps in and saves him.
- Ho beats the crap out of Thaddeus and imprisons both he and Li Kung. They are tortured and put on display at the edge of town.
- Li Kung is killed in town square and Thaddeus, now injured, is let free to go since he is not one of the miners and he can build stuff for the Scorpions.
- Thaddeus reaches the requisite All Is Lost moment when he sees that Ho has kidnapped Li Kung's daughter. Hell, maybe Ho is going to marry her or something.
- Thaddeus channels his chi and goes on a revenge spree, building up to a crazy drag-out fight between him and Ho.
- Thaddeus wins, the Scorpions run away, and the movie ends.
The movie is almost there, but then it keeps throwing in all this other stuff and over-complicating things. It's a real shame; there was nearly a fun movie here.
Would I Recommend It?
Yes, marginally. Although about half of it isn't that great, there's at least a good 45 minute chunk of this that's pretty entertaining. When it works, it works. To put it another way: this is the first movie I've seen for this blog so far where I want to track down the prequel and check it out.
Speaking of which....
What Do I Think the Prequel Was About
I assume all the flashback scenes that I didn't talk about cover the prequel pretty well: Thaddeus is a blacksmith in America whose wife (sister?) gives birth, and then a cruel slaveowner / businessman has her killed and chops off his hands. Then the slaveowner skips town to go seek a new source of his product in China. (Sorry to be reductive, but we're talkin' 19th century white dudes here.)
Thaddeus nurses his wounds and a blacksmith friend builds him a pair of iron prosthetics, but they're not really all that useful since they're just lumps of metal. Then Thaddeus hears there's a temple in China where he can pray and focus his chi to take possession of the metal and turn them into workable hands. He goes on a voyage to do so, and along the way runs into the slaver again.
Thaddeus is unable to beat the slaver and watches miserably as he commits more atrocities abroad. But then, with the guidance of a kindly monk, finally learns to control his fists. He goes on a revenge spree and kills the slaver, plus all his employees. It's all really cool and badass, but when the bloodlust is over, he finds out that his actions have inadvertently caused his monk friend (and possibly others) to get killed.
Wracked by guilt, Thaddeus sets of on a quest to cleanse his soul, and that's where we pick up in Part 2.
My Pitch for Another One
I mentioned Yojimbo earlier. Can you do that? It's kinda due for another remake, and I think an iron-fisted RZA would do just fine.