The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
After Gold Lion is betrayed by Silver Lion (Byron Mann), the son of the deceased, Zen Yi (Rick Yune), vows to get vengeance. Word has it that Silver Lion and his crew are making their way to Jungle Village to intercept the emperor’s gold from the Gemini Twins. Meanwhile, an Englishman named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) arrives at the village and spends the night in a whorehouse managed by the elegant Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu).
“The Man with the Iron Fists,” based on the screenplay by RZA and Eli Roth, might have been a lot more fun if the writers had made a brave decision to excise the fat and amplify the gravity-defying action sequence ridiculousness. What could have been a seventy-minute film of non-stop adrenaline rush is consistently bogged down by a lame attempt of introducing background stories, particularly the title character (RZA)—who is not all that interesting in the first place.
At times the picture comes across as a dirtier, less elegant version of Yimou Zhang’s “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” This is a compliment because it strives to fuse eastern—kung fu—and western elements—typical editing and feel of hip-hop music videos—to create something rather original. The result is a mixed bag but I would rather watch something different that works only once in a while than something expected but offering nothing new. I felt the performers’ enthusiasm in playing their roles.
The standout is Crowe, playing a character who loves to have fun with women. On one level, I was surprised that Crowe actually signed up for this material. Many actors similar or equal to his caliber would likely have turned down the offer immediately or would not even have considered it. On another level, I admired how Crowe plays Jack without ever winking at the camera. His intensity is controlled, as if he were in a dramatic role, and so when the humor presented in the script takes center stage, it feels right.
I did not at all buy into RZA as neither a creator of deadly weapons nor as a man who wishes to start a new life with a prostitute (Jamie Chung). Unlike Crowe and Yune, he does not exude a high level of charisma. It is clear that he has to work harder to reach the same level of magnetism as his co-stars but he does not.
Some of the fight scenes are beautiful. I enjoyed the showdown in the brothel as well as the short-lived appearance of the Gemini Twins. Like the great kung fu films, the picture treats action sequences like a dance—here, a dirty and grimy dance. The pacing may be offbeat at times, but there is an undeniable energy to them so one cannot look away.
Directed by RZA, “The Man with the Iron Fists” offers a disappointing in story but is quite eye-catching. It would have benefited greatly if Roth and RZA played upon their strengths as visual storytellers and abstained from jamming down sentimental stories down our throats. This way, it might have spared us the occasional boredom.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Shen, a peacock, was supposed to lead Gongmen City when he grew up. But when Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), a goat, predicted that someone in black and white was going to thwart his thirst for power, Shen (Gary Oldman) decided to kill pandas all over China. When he returned home, his parents banished him from the city. Years later, bitter Shen reappeared, equipped with newfangled metallic weapons and ravenous but dim-witted wolves, to take back the city, eliminate kung fu, and gain control of China. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, was a hasty but scrumptious sequel filled with non-stop action, cuddly rabbits, funny jokes about the anthropomorphic characters, and gorgeous animation. With a relatively simple storyline, the film wasted no time in sending Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) to release Gongmen City from the evil peacock with feathers as knives. But it was far from an easy task. Each successive action sequence became increasingly difficult for our heroes which meant more complex plans of attack and trickier camera angles. It also meant more scenes where Po had to clandestinely blend into the environment to no avail. I loved the aerial shots especially when the Dragon Warrior and his friends attempted to sneak into the city while in a dancing dragon costume. Looking down, it looked like a helpless caterpillar desperately trying to find its way out of a labyrinth while avoiding nasty predators. I also enjoyed the scene in which our protagonists had to run to the tip of a building as it slowly collapsed. There was a real sense of peril as Po and company were thrown around like rag dolls. Since Shen wielded a myriad cannons, the city was eventually thrown in a state of calamity, its residents dispersing like flies. Although potentially too violent for kids, the filmmakers found a way to hide certain realities. For example, someone who was hit by a cannonball was almost always immediately shown as only slightly wounded but ultimately safe. There was an interesting subplot involving Po’s origins. Po finally realized that Mr. Ping (James Hong), a duck, wasn’t his biological father. Mr. Ping was heartbroken from the prospect of Po treating him differently other than the father who found him in a box, raised, and fed him tons of radishes when he was a baby panda. Fragments of memories began to manifest themselves and they caused turmoil in Po’s mind. It proved to be inconvenient because the only way he could learn a special kung fu move, with the aid of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), was to find inner peace. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” directed by Jennifer Yuh, was surprisingly fresher than newly dug radishes. It is a product of synergy among comedic asides, kinetic martial arts, and the more sentimental scenes between Po and his dad. Most of all, it is a testament that sequels need not rely on typicalities to duplicate the successes of its predecessor. Its ambition and execution make it a solid companion piece.