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Chop-chop, you don't stop

Subtlety is the first casualty in RZA's martial arts fable The Man with the Iron Fists.

Tarantino-ism strikes again. African-American rap star RZA caught the bug while working on the soundtrack for Tarantino's martial arts movie Kill Bill. Now he has made his own martial arts hybrid, and a strange, unruly beast it is.

He plays the film's unlikely hero - a runaway slave from the American south. He is working as a blacksmith in a village in the Chinese badlands, where he is forced to forge weapons for the local criminal clans, who like to kit themselves out in animal skins. The Lion, Wolf and Hyena clans are the top dogs, so to speak, and they have every hope of beating one another to a consignment of the emperor's gold that is due to pass by the village soon.

But unfortunately for them, Russell Crowe is on the case. Dusting off the accent he used as Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander, he is cast as a gentleman adventurer with a penchant for carving up the scenery with a customised hunting knife. There's a lot of chewing of the scenery, as well. RZA and his collaborators have no time for the view that less is more. Their style is all about overacting, overexertion and going over the top from a variety of directions. RZA's collaborator on the script was Eli Roth, who created the torture porn series Hostel, and he makes sure that the results of all this effort are splattered across the screen in an arterial shade of red.

The ''Eastern western'' has a distinguished pedigree - although this is not the film I'd choose by way of illustration. To do that, you have to go back to the 1950s, when the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa filtered his admiration for John Ford westerns into the making of Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Hollywood then returned the compliment when directors Martin Ritt and John Sturges remade both films as The Outrage and The Magnificent Seven. And Sergio Leone joined in with A Fistful of Dollars, his version of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. George Lucas, too, has acknowledged his debt to Kurosawa. But Tarantino, who ''presents'' The Man with the Iron Fists, really changed the game when he imported the conventions of the martial arts movie into a world of his own fevered imagining in his Kill Bill films.

RZA diligently watched how it was done, spending a lot of time on the set, and is doing his best here to put his observations to spectacular use. But eagerness is not a synonym for talent, and the mayhem he creates resonates with the sound of somebody trying much too hard.

Thaddeus, the blacksmith, knows all about that. He is a peaceable man who has been hoping for a long time that the money he earns from his work will finance his escape from the village and its assorted animal herds. His girlfriend, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), feels the same and is squirrelling away what she makes at the village brothel, managed by Lucy Liu's Madam Blossom (who doesn't get nearly enough screen time).


Crowe's Jack Knife is a great fan of her establishment. He has taken a suite and is partying with his opium and a trio of her girls while awaiting the gold shipment. And checking on the turbulent political scene. The Lions have just been shaken up by a coup.

Despite all the time he spends on personal grooming, Silver Lion (Byron Mann) has managed to execute a double-cross, assassinating the clan leader and seeing off the competition. A lot of face-pulling has accompanied this, and many buckets of blood. Most of RZA's fighters are not content to use just legs and fists, iron or not. They like to slice and dice, and I was relieved not to see the film in 3D. The prospect of being pelted with severed limbs is not enticing.

We're told that RZA's first cut of the film ran for four hours and that he reluctantly consented to lose some fight scenes for coherence. I can believe it, but I'm unsure about the coherence bit. One character looks as if he wandered in from The Da Vinci Code in search of his backstory, and I could have done with more of the Geminis, a husband-and-wife team of flying kung fu fighters, and less of the frenetic editing style that minces many of the fight scenes into their constituent body parts without letting you know what is actually going on. They begin as if RZA has just discovered the meaning of the word ''balletic''.

Then the tempo changes and any sense of martial arts as choreography gets the chop. Liu and her Blossom girls are casualties. Their fight scene begins well. Then RZA seems to forget he ever thought feminism was a good idea and loses interest.

At the end of it I was reeling. I felt as if I'd just spent 95 minutes trapped in a blender.

Twitter: @SandraHFilm



Directed by RZA

Rated MA, 95 minutes