Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Man with the Iron Fists [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  Roger Moore (1 Star)  AV Club (B)  Fr Dennis (2 Stars - with an explanation)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Moore's review
AV Club's review

Conceding everything in the somewhat uncharacteristically brutal review by the CNS/USCCB's media office (John Mulderig certainly is at least partly right and his review is worth the read), I'm still left with a somewhat different impression of The Man with the Iron Fists (directed, starring, and cowritten by rapper RZA [IMDb] along with Eli Roth and affiliated in some but unclear way with Quentin Tarantino [IMDb] who's made a career of making similarly striking if ultraviolent movies and is now old enough to have become something of a "mentor" figure for younger movie makers choosing to go down a similar path).

That impression is not borne so much of the film itself but of my waiting in line, actually to buy tickets for the first showing of another film, Flight [2012], which was opening on the same night.  Ahead of me at this South West Suburban theater just outside of Chicago was a fairly large group of smartly but not overly expensively dressed young Asian college students, both men and women, rattling away in what I assume was Chinese (I'm guessing Mandarin though it could have been Cantonese) all there to see The Man with the Iron Fists.  And it impressed me that if a group of smiling Chinese young adults was going out of their way to see the first showing of an American made martial arts film (filmed in Shanghai and with a lot of Chinese and Chinese-American actors) that the film would not necessarily be that bad.

Hence as I sometimes do, I looked-up the youth oriented AV Club (the "serious side" of the satirical Onion newspaper) to see what it had to say of the film, and found, lo and behold that the reviewer gave the film a "B" (out of an A-F scale).  This is rather impressive actually given that the AV Club tends to be notoriously tough in its reviews (very, very few films get an "A-" to say nothing of an "A").  It will interest me what reviewers in Hong Kong and even China will have to say...

The Man with the Iron Fists is, of course, a genre film, coming out of the tradition of Hong Kong action (martial arts) genre, popularized in the United States by the legendary Bruce Lee [IMDb] and later by the Hong Kong born martial arts/comedic actor Jackie Chan [IMDb]. (The IMDb maintains a truly impressive list called "250 best martial arts films" that could definitely be of interest to some readers here). While having roots in the historical situation / chaos of 19th century / early 20th century pre-Communist era China, like the American Western which technically is rooted in the post-Civil War, late 1800s chaos of the "Wild West," the martial arts genre has, of course, gained a "life of its own."  And just like some of the most outrageous novels about "The Wild West" (capturing its "spirit" if not necessarily reality...) were written in places like Italy or Germany, it shouldn't surprise anyone too much that American born directors like Tarantino [IMDb] (or rappers like RZA [IMDb]) would find the still relatively tame martial arts classics like Fist of Fury [1972] or Enter the Dragon [1973] fascinating and subsequently take the genre in all kinds of "creative" directions afterwards. After all, Jackie Chan's [IMDb] movies (even when still made in Hong Kong) do so similarly (though certainly _more humorously_).  Indeed, Jackie Chan [IMDb] did with martial arts films what Clint Eastwood's [IMDb] "spaghetti westerns" did with the Classic Western.

All this is to say that film goers may not particularly like (or even be revolted by) the particular/peculiar ultra violent take that Tarantino [IMDb] or RZA [IMDb] would bring to the "martial arts movie," and yet still go to see it and then judge the film according to the conventions of the "traditional martial arts film" set in crime ridden, "opium den" laden "China" of the late 19th / early 20th century (before the Communists effectively brought an end to the chaos of the "War Lords" era).   

So then, having seen this film, set somewhere "in the provinces" of China in the latter part of the 19th century, I do have to say that the gratuitous gore in the film "distracted."  The film would have been far better, far more entertaining without it.  One could have even kept the the Russel Crowe character, Jack ("but you can call me Ripper") a Britisher, introducing himself as someone "who's on vacation" (but is actually a hired agent working for the Emperor and his forces), _without_ needlessly _lingering_ on _all_ that he does with his monstrous knife.  (Yes, he had a huge knife, yes he used it to cut, indeed gut, people.  But do we really have to see him truly split a man and his _still beating heart_ in two?  Parents especially, you get the picture...).

Now one could also object that a good part of the film took place in a brothel called "The Peach Tree" (run by a Madam named "Blossom" played by Lucy Liu).  But here I would note that there was actually no nudity in the film (as is the case in most westerns) and yet to make a martial arts film set in 19th century China without a brothel/"opium den" would be somewhat akin to making a western without a saloon and at least a hint of the brothel no doubt sit above it.  In both cases without the presence of a brothel, the story would probably be largely devoid of women.  (One could actually make an interesting pro-Christian and specifically pro-Catholic appeal here.  In the past, in places like the Far East when families could not afford the young girls that they had (as in other places in the world, girls tended to need dowries to be married off...), for better or for worse, the families would often sell the girls to brothels.  And yes, some of these girls perhaps proved "lucky" and were subsequently sold or otherwise "moved up" to be concubines to some fairly important officials perhaps even the Emperor.  But for the most part, they would have ended up in some "Peach Tree" somewhere (or become part of the "human trafficking" system that exists to this day).  In the Catholic West and later in more Catholic places like Vietnam, a lot of those girls would have been given instead to Orphanages and would have ended up joining Convents.  One would imagine that becoming a nun would have been a far better alternative to becoming a prostitute (in Japan a Geisha girl) or a concubine).

Anyway ... if one can get past the needless, lingering, blood-splattering violence of the film, it can actually make for an interesting if still "romanticized" genre-period piece.  Since "Flight" was a significantly longer movie than "The Man with the Iron Fists" was, I don't know what the Chinese young people who went to see this film thought of it, but I would have been interested.  Perhaps I'll find a review from Hong Kong, Taiwan or China to post here some day...

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