How often do you ever see big-budget Hollywood martial arts movies with A-list stars? Not too darn often. And The Man with the Iron Fists is no exception. I mean, yes, it's a big-budget Hollywood movie with A-list stars (Russel Crow and Lucy Lu), but it is, unfortunately, not a martial arts movie, regardless of how they might want to bill it.
The guy who made this movie (some dude who apparently has initials instead of a name, RZA) clearly had no idea how to make a martial arts movie. Here's the thing about the martial arts --they are arts. You know, ARTS, activities of skill and learning that require training and long practice to perfect, the sorts of disciplines that outsiders might be able to observe, but can never really understand without putting in a great deal of time and study.
Unlike your typical action movie, fight scenes in a martial arts movie are not just dramatic spectacles; they are exhibits of art. The fight scenes in The Man with the Iron Fists are to real martial arts what a kazoo band is to a symphony orchestra. This is especially sad because there there was plenty of talent in the cast to do real martial arts fight scenes if the director had only known how. Mr. initials did the equivalent of hiring a cast of concert musicians and giving them all kazoos to play the score for the movie.
This is not to say that the fight scenes in The Man with the Iron Fists are not entertaining. There were in fact some entertaining moments scattered throughout the fight scenes. There were more moments that could have been entertaining if the annoyingly abrupt camera motion had given the viewer time to appreciate them, but that would have involved more work on the part of the director and actors because to do justice to a fight sequence, the actors have to practice the motions over and over again until they can do them in real time without stopping. Then, depending on how much they move around, you may have to practice some more with the film crew, getting them to move at the right times and have the cameras in the right places. The man with the missing name (who also plays the man with the iron fists in addition to being the director) preferred to substitute special effects and jerky editing for this hard work. Or, more likely in my opinion, he just didn't know how to film a fight scene at all.
So, given that there is no art in the martial scenes, what inspires anyone to call this movie a martial arts movie? Simply that the setting, the story line, and prevalence of fight scenes was loosely patterned after certain kinds of martial arts movies. But even in this area, The Man with the Iron Fists was something of a let down.
There are no hard and fast rules about the story line of a martial arts movie, but there are certain commonalities that are usually observed. Usually, the first act creates a situation where a fight between the hero and the villain has to happen, and the fight happens in the third act as the climax of the movie. Sometimes the setup involves the hero and the villain having a fight early in the move and the hero loses, giving him a goal of practicing or finding some other way to defeat the villain in the showdown. Sometimes the setup involves the villain killing a friend or family member of the hero and the movie works on making you sympathize with the need for revenge. Sometimes it's a competition, either a blood sport, or the hero and the villain having conflicting goals and the movie makes you root for the hero. However the fight is set up, you have to have an Act II where you learn to share the hero's goals and fear what happens if he loses, otherwise the climactic fight is just another punch out.
In The Man with the Iron Fists we have no less than four climactic fight scenes but only two of them are set up with any motivation and only one of those setups occurs in the first act. The first-act setup is a typical revenge scenario, but the avenging hero is something of a bit player in the second act and never generates enough personality that you care whether he wins or not. The second fight setup happens late in the second act and there just isn't time to make you really care about the hero in that situation either. And obviously, the other two climactic fight scenes have no meaning for the audience since they were not set up at all. By the end of the movie, you don't really care much about what happens.
Of course, there are plenty of real martial arts films with bad, silly, or even incoherent story lines. They take place in various settings from ancient China to the American West to modern day locations all around the world. They can have various sorts of heroes and villains. Sometimes the villains can even win. None of that is essential to martial arts movies. What is essential to a martial arts movie is that the fight scenes display martial arts, not just kicks and karate chops and judo throws and nunchucks and throwing knives and men with invulnerable skins. If you don't have trained martial artists practicing their art in the fight scenes, or at least a plausible fake, then all you have is a fight movie with karate chops.