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Kung-Fu masters with heavy metal hair kick each others’ bodies apart while the Ol’ Dirty Bastard raps about running game. This is the first five minutes of the RZA’s heavily anticipated directorial debut, and it is exactly what we were hoping for. The action is frenetic, and bloody as hell, and the music, while sliding toward the more traditional as the film goes on, completes it to create a satisfying whole. The hip-hop/martial arts aesthetic has never been better, and The Man with the Iron Fists is not only an essential piece of that legacy, it’s self-aware and exciting niche entertainment.

A decently complex but well-designed story structure is held together by running commentary of the Blacksmith (RZA), who feels at once out of place, with his modern locution, and spiritually engaged. We move from character to character under this guide, learning who the players are and how every piece fits into place in anticipation of the final showdown. The plot builds toward what promises to be an explosive ending, telling of a shipment of gold that’s headed through the violent Jungle Village, where seven deadly clans have gathered to wage war. Infighting in the Lion Clan has put a warmonger on top, a goofball psychopath named Silver Lion (Byron Mann) who seeks to claim the gold.

He stays in Lady Blossom’s (Lucy Liu) hotel, the same place where later a mysterious gunfighter, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), will establish his lethal presence. Meanwhile, Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) is told of his father’s death at Silver Lion’s hands, and treks back to Jungle Village to avenge him and take the clan back. Predicting this course of action, Silver Lion dispatches his chief assassin, Brass Body (Dave Bautista), to deal with it.

Everyone needs a weapon, and so they all turn to the Blacksmith, who only wants to leave with his woman, a Blossom Prostitute known as Lady Silk (Jamie Chung). There are many characters here and a lot of recognizable names. As a co-screenwriter, the RZA manages to balance all of them equally, allowing for even minor characters like the Gemini Killers (Andrew Li and Grace Huang) ample screentime for badassery. There are also some key cameos, though apparently I missed Eli Roth’s. Watch for that one, I guess.

With RZA as a director, this does in a few ways feel like a debut film. The camera isn’t always confident or well-placed (though a few shots are downright beautiful), but the action is great — hyperviolent, flamboyantly bloody, and visually stimulating. There’s a rhythm to it that I assume a rap producer must have a feel for — the speeding up and slowing down for crucial moments and amplification of impacts is second nature to someone who not only lives and breathes musical timing, but has gorged himself on a lifetime of martial arts cinema to know well what works and what doesn’t.

And the story is perfectly structured for this premise. It’s an action movie, so there’s no muddling of the action with boring mythology or cliché and boring characters as in the last live-action Hollywood Chinese martial arts movie — The Forbidden Kingdom. Though this lacks the star power of that movie, it has a cast that not only looks great in their crazy costumes, but provides energetic or appropriately brooding performances. A particular standout is Byron Mann, whose Silver Lion enjoys what he does just a bit too much.

Though the RZA as an actor seems to take a backseat to the others, he shows his stuff in the moments he provides for himself, playing the Blacksmith with a subdued rage and mystical spirit that comes through in those sad, sad eyes. His voiceovers are just so damn entertaining, and his physical performance is believable in its own, fantastical logic.

On the writing side, there is a lot of dialogue that works, but is somewhat ‘dropped’ by awkward shot choices. There’s a moment early on where one of Silver Lion’s cronies agrees with a fellow soldier in that very obvious, bandwagon way, and the Silver Lion begins to call him on it, which feels like the setup to a punchline that never comes — there’s never a reaction shot of the dude, or really any change in frame at all from Silver Lion. It’s the small things like these that will eventually have you wondering abour later moments, like when the female Gemini notes that the Blossom cook’s beef is spicy, and he responds, “Oh goooood,” rather strangely but seemingly deliberately. Why include that moment at all?

Complaints are small and those are all of them. The Man with the Iron Fists is a hugely entertaining action movie with memorable characters and a plot that builds and intrigues, rather than complicates and alienates. Tarantino provides an introduction and trailer for Django Unchained before the RZA’s movie starts, and the Jamie Foxx-led ‘southern’ looks damn good, but the bar’s been officially raised for balls-out, exploitative, genre-literate violence.

The Wu-Tang Clan created a unique sound in the 90s by sampling old kung fu movies into violent but passionate hip-hop lyrics — there was a combination of the east and west that was slightly more celebratory than the other east/west mashup where 90s rap is concerned. This fusion of martial arts’ philosophical themes and styles with the poetic and hard-hitting music creates a fascinating aesthetic that’s sustained a multitude of titles since. We’re finally seeing a major, mainstream entry in this legacy, with directorial guidance from the RZA himself — an expert in martial arts films and no stranger to the movie industry.

If you want to know what to expect with The Man with the Iron Fists or just want to see where the RZA is coming from, check out the following…

Samurai Champloo

This doesn’t have direct involvement from the RZA, but director Shinichiro Watanabe is familiar with combining a distinct musical style with specific film genres. Here it’s chambara film and hip-hop, with a killer opening song and frequent, kinetic action scenes. Champloo is a very good anime series but suffers from Watanabe’s own filmography — his previous Cowboy Bebop is considered to be the greatest anime series of all time. When you follow that with a very good anime — well, you can do the math. The series is consistent, dramatic, and frequently humorous. The characters are fun, and the overall feel is hip and stylish. The ending song is also great.

Shogun Assassin

This is one of the few movies where the English dub is actually mandatory. If you see it in the original language track you’ll miss the dialogue that the GZA sampled into various instrumentals on Liquid Swords. It’s small wonder why this film made such an impact on the Wu-Tang founder — it’s a strange little gem, completely unafraid of excessive sprays of blood and even violence against women: the kind that might make you cringe, but it’s all in good fun. And what’s more fun than seeing a badass baby riding around in a baby cart built of weapons with his stoic samurai dad? The ultimate family movie. It’s actually an edit of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies, so it takes all the action bits, and leaves out assumedly plenty of story. The Lone Wolf manga was penned by Kazuo Koike, author of among other things, Lady Snowblood, the adaptation of which had a major influence on the next on the list…

Kill Bill

Yep, that’s him alright. An alarming deletion of scene from Part II, where Bill fights this let’s say, Dynamite, Samurai

The RZA scored this, the original ‘two tickets, one movie,’ dealio back from when we didn’t know about a Harry Potter 7 or Twilight 4. Luckily this is one of Tarantino’s best, a balls-insane mashup of Italian westerns, Shaw Brothers kung-fu, samurai epics, and the gorier pieces of Japanese cinema a la Fukasaku and Miike. The Man with the Iron Fists is being produced by Tarantino, so I imagine the RZA will be benefitting here from an established creative relationship, as he does consider the great genrebuster a mentor. It might also, however, be like Frank Miller coming off of Sin City with The Spirit. Let’s hope not.

Afro Samurai

I’ve only seen the first episode. Interesting, but I haven’t heard great things about it. This is probably more hip-hop than samurai, if Champloo was more samurai than hip-hop, but I’ve never heard anyone call it better than its Japanese counterpart.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Before the RZA’s directorial debut, Ghost Dog was definitely the quintessential Wu-Tang movie. It features Forest Whitaker as a Mafia hit man who lives by the code of the samurai. It’s a mostly tacit lifestyle, filled with night-driving and hanging out with the odd gallery of friends he amasses in a French ice cream truck guy and a scholarly little girl. It is a lifestyle punctuated by violence nonetheless, and the action in this movie is sparse but effective, particularly with Ghost Dog’s first kill.

Ghost Dog ‘sheathes’ his silenced pistols much in the way a samurai would a sword, and practices martial arts on the lonely New York rooftops, up there with the pigeons, his preferred mode of communication with the outside world. This is a quirky if uneven film, funny in places and dark in others, but overall an iconic example of the gangsta/samurai aesthetic, and proud piece in a legacy following films like Le Samourai and those of Kurosawa — it isn’t revision so much as it is celebration.

Celebration I’d say is a key theme. There’s an appreciation of many cultures, and a tolerance of such things that’s unprecedented in violent macho movies. Ghost Dog is very in tune with his inner spirit, and is able to communicate with his best friend the ice cream guy by pushing through the language barrier — it’s a deeper connection. The most telling scene is when the ice cream guy, fascinated by a man building a boat, yells down from a rooftop in French: “That’s incredible! How are you gonna get that out?” and gets “I don’t understand, but I have to get back to work!” as a response, in Spanish. The ice cream guy smiles and Ghost Dog nods, walks off.

This embracing of other people and foreign cultures is a cornerstone of this ‘subgenre,’ and I think there’s a lot to be gained in blending cultures, mixing philosophies and aesthetics to create modern mythology in film and music.

The RZA, who scored Ghost Dog, does appear in this film, credited as the “Samurai in Camoflague,” and though his scene is brief, it is perhaps the most appropriate role for him. Better at least, then the crackhead who gets killed in American Gangster. We’ll see truly how his acting skills (among other things) shake out on the 2nd of next month, but I have high hopes. He’s such a cool guy; it’d suck to see his movie fare poorly.

Oh, and the Italian gangsters in this movie are just crazy. If nothing else, watch this movie for them. They are not unlike the depiction of cosa nostra in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

So that should give you a general idea — these various titles the with direct involvement of the RZA, or that follow his approach to genre, are the Wu-Tang aesthetic and philosophy manifest in film and TV. The ultimate piece will be The Man with the Iron Fists, and if Ghost Dog and Kill Bill were the RZA’s film background, he’s in good shape.

Well shit — you see that picture with the eyeball!

 

Total Recall is among many of the short story adaptations of the author’s work, something that makes sense from a screenwriters’ standpoint, and hopefully from the producers’, because as Cronenberg has said of adaptations, they’re less translations than they are transformations. A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner are polar opposites when it comes to the method of their respective adaptations, and they serve as telling analogies to the difficulties of not only adapting novels, but adapting Dick. To the screenwriter, novels have structures that can be broken down into three acts, which based on the novel, may be true, but isn’t always, and thus these movies aren’t always successful. Look at Dune – well, don’t. I’m sure there were other problems with that one. *blek*

With a short story, the screenwriter sees story elements, and these can be transcribed onto film. And Philip K. Dick shorts usually have strong, high concept premises, so that’s what you’ll see in Minority Report and Total Recall and others – the premise, and story elements. Unlike Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau and Paycheck and the other PG-13 Dick flicks, Total Recall is lousy with MPAA-here’s-the-middle-finger-you-assholes moments. Bullets don’t rip people to shreds like this in movies, not even in John Woo. This must be the work… of Paul Verhoeven.

Before Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven was a force to be reckoned with as a champion of science-fiction film. He did a lot to sell the genre as an effective medium of satire, with each of his entries in an unofficial scifi trilogy – Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers – becoming increasingly bolder in their sociopolitical statements. They also share something even more important: they’re all great, fun movies. Big and full of explosions and car crashes and guns, guns, guns.

 

Total Recall, based on “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” by Philip K. Dick, is not quite as successful in its introspections Robocop, but at least as successful as Troopers, and this is just fine. At the end of the day, Total Recall is an Arnold movie, meaning it’s an iconic action movie with a lot of macho. Arnold is a presence, he’s the face of American action cinema, spanning just as many subgenres as Sly Stallone but with more success (in that, for example, The 6th Day was technically better than Judge Dredd), and he makes any movie he’s in an Arnold movie. Just think – Aliens almost had Arnold playing Hicks; it was very close to being an Arnold movie.

This particular Arnold volume has an interesting twist – it offers a few phildickian questions into the “What is real?” half of the author’s preoccupations, going so far as to create one scenario about mid-way through that’s reminiscent of Ubik. Sharon Stone and some fellow ‘working for’ Rekal approach Quaid and try to explain this scifi adventure away as a fantasy, that they’re simply avatars trying to reach Quaid from the other side. For a moment the audience is confused. Perhaps this isn’t real?

Then Arnold shoots the guy and there’s an action scene, which is great, though it washes away all that ambiguity in favor of what Total Recall prioritizes: action with a capital a. To be fair, there is enough narrative evidence to throw out the question, for example this has the John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness issue of insanity, where the audience can’t really be convinced of one character’s mental hiccups when the movie isn’t told exclusively from his viewpoint. Not every scene has Quaid in it, just like not every scene in Carpenter’s flick has Sam Neil. Yes, it would be interesting to have that question, and it is a good idea, but the scifi action movie is a popular medium, an audience’s medium. The Philip k. Dick novel is not, certainly not in the year 1990, at least, or whenever this film was first brought to the studios – a guaranteed long time before release.

For all its charm, Total Recall was a troubled development. Of all people, David Cronenberg was attached to it, which to me is just wild. To think that Total Recall could’ve been more Naked Lunch than Commando is an intriguing thought, but if Cronenberg was to adapt any Dick I’ve read so far I hope it’d be Ubik: there’s plenty of body horror in that one, with all the people dissolving and the android bomb and the guy who eats people whole. I could see it. Unfortunately Cronenberg’s sort of gone in a different direction, but A Dangerous Method still looks amazing.

Anywho, Total Recall eventually (or perhaps always was, I don’t rekal) got the treatment of Dan O’Bannon, another cult favorite, also responsible for genre favorites like Return of the Living Dead and (funnily enough) Screamers. I don’t know who did this, but somebody along the way did something really cool to the short story, which for quick recap, is much simpler, and quite the good laugh, though a different brand of humor than “Consider that a divorce.” There is dedicated imagination in Total Recall; it’s filled with a great many ‘things.’ The number of inventive gadgets and SF elements is staggering, each unique and often offering a set piece or clever moment (bursting through X-Ray wall, for example) as cinematic application.

In addition, there’s an element of metanarrative here that I’ve always found interesting, and this seems to be a common theme in Arnold movies, from Commando to Last Action Hero, and even Terminator 3. At some point filmmakers realize that the Arnold movie can be a delicate art – one that’s self-aware. This isn’t quite like that, but references to a secret agent hero defeating the badguy and getting the girl in the end are made by Rekal yuppies, and there’s no better quintessential secret agent hero than the Arnold. Layers of unreality, I suppose – stories within stories.

Total Recall is bursting at the seams with stuff. One-liners and gratuitous violence galore, it’s a perfectly, characteristically paced Verhoeven action picture. We never move from scene to scene without a big set piece, without Michael Ironside or Dick Jones running and gunning through a rich world. The production design in Total Recall is pure joy. The interiors kind of remind me of the Citadel and other planets from Mass Effect, where alien landscapes are in plain view right out the windows. The mutant effects, from the vagina-face dude to Benny’s arm, are all charmingly practical makeup effects. The big vehicles and the weapons are cool, so it goes. Check this one – it’s a classic.

See you at the party, Richter.

It would be helpful, or maybe just interesting, to know what goes through our friend Takashi Miike’s head before he embarks on making one of these gangster pictures. He doesn’t seem to want to say anything, or revolutionize the formulaic genre, but he makes so many of them – there’s got to be a reason. I can’t imagine spending two years making a movie like Shinjuku Triad Society and ending up with something so bland, so unspecial. Say what you will about Ichi the Killer (it sucks), at least it was different, going all the way on the perverse meter and giving us a distinct, disturbing host of images to haunt our dreams forever.

Shinjuku Triad Society on the other hand ventures to the edge, but merely peers over. Sure, there’s more man-on-man cocksucking that I’ve ever seen on film, and a cop-on-the-edge who takes to rape and brutality whenever the chips are down, but in between all the “oh my god no” moments – the movie was practically asking for me to fall asleep. To be fair, I don’t really care about the crime-drama genre, and think that out of all of them the South Central gangsters will always be the most interesting, but there are a special few non-John Woo Asian gangster movies I really dig.

Takashi Miike is a director who I really, really want to like. Glancing over his filmography we find a range of colorful titles that pull me in – Full Metal Yakuza, Sukiyaki Western Django, Happiness of the Katakuris – and the movies of his I’ve seen all have great premises. In Shinjuku Triad Society, and by extension Ichi the Killer, we have an ultraviolent picture about some messed-up gangsters and a disturbing exploration into the pyschological darkness of Japan’s worst. Sounds good, but the execution is less like a Wong Kar Wai gangster flick and more like… mean-spirited characters I hate.

A Wong Kar Wai movie like As Tears Go By is thick with melodrama and has very little violence. Absolutely no sexuality or nudity – an experience with less (or no, rather) exploitative distractions from what it’s saying. With Shinjuku Triad Society, what begins as your by-the-numbers crime-drama descends slowly and painstakingly into a shambling, stumbling farce: aggresive but empty cinema. That’s also what I got from what I saw of 13 Assassins, a movie with an amazing trailer.

A criticism I recall regarding the films of Martin Scorsese that I totally agree with was that these characters are all jerks. Why should I care about their success? That’s exactly how I felt about this movie. None of the character appealed to me; the opposite, in fact. What is it about this movie that inspired Miike to make it? Couldn’t be the characters, or the story, or the themes, so it must be the violence. The entire movie feels like a vehicle for the gruesome violence, including one actually kind of ‘cool’ instance where the cop slams a chair down on a suspect lying on the interrogation table – we cut to big Japanese title letters on impact. Very effective.

Unfortunately the quality goes downhill from there but the classic Miike misogyny only ramps up. Boy, there’s nothing that entertains me more than violence against women. Forced sex? Color me impressed!

I’ll give the guy one more chance, but if I see another movie like this, I’m hanging it up on this dude. I hate to say “too Japanese,” because Japan is awesome, right? But

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