When celebrity musicians moonlight as movie directors, they can cut against the grain of their images (e.g., Madonna going all Merchant-Ivory in last year's W.E.) or they can extend, in visual and stylistic terms, the essence of their brand. Rob Zombie's horror films have a death-metal cachet, and the hip-hop multi-hyphenate the RZA, who directed The Man with the Iron Fists, affirms his Wu-Tang Clan swagger right from the slashing, neo-'70s chop-sockey opening credits. Unfortunately, this martial-arts bloodbath set in 19th-century China (and executive produced by Quentin Tarantino) has been made with a great deal more attitude than skill. The RZA loves to stage scenes like the one in which Russell Crowe, as a British enforcer working for the emperor, brandishes his posh gentleman's accent just before pulling out a serrated knife shaped like a pistol and slicing a foe from his throat right down to his gut. Badass! In the fight scenes, the bodies fly and twirl, but mostly they spurt geysers of digitized blood, all set to a nihilistic beat.
But that doesn't make the fight scenes good (they're jagged and graceless, without much rhythm beyond what the music gives them), and God, what a logy mess the rest of the movie is. Working from a script he cowrote with Eli Roth, the RZA tells the relatively simple story of a corrupt clan called the Lions, who look like they're wearing Jon Bon Jovi wigs and who are trying to ship a pile of stolen gold. But there is endless murky cross-cutting and confusion, and the actors look stranded. The one exception is Crowe, who delivers his lines with a witty, perky delight that makes it seem as if he'd dropped in from another film (one in which people were allowed to act). Lucy Liu, as a madam who presides over a brothel of harlot harpies, does dragon-lady shtick. And the RZA, playing an escaped American slave-turned-blacksmith who loses his limbs and has them replaced with iron prosthetics, never varies his showy impassivity. Thanks to directors like Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers), the bar is higher for martial-arts films than it used to be, and The Man with the Iron Fists lacks the intermittent flair and excitement that even an okay entry in the genre ought to deliver. The movie wants to be deadly cool, but mostly it's just deadly. D+