It has always been my belief that movies are descriptive essays come to life. I've taught students to watch film with a critical eye and to notice how closely screenplays follow the same requirements of academic writing. An introduction with an attention-grabbing element that will also appear in the conclusion, solid main points that are relevant and fully developed, transitions to improve the flow from one scene to the next – it’s not hard to see why the hallmark of good cinema is good writing.
When a movie has great writing, why the show was so successful can be difficult to pinpoint because most, if not all, of the elements it needs are well done. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true. It’s much easier to identify the flaws in a badly written movie because we take for granted that the basics will be present; when characters are under-developed and multiple plot holes exist, the absence of quality writing comes as a shock.
It can be difficult to find movies so badly done that it’s impossible to not see what part of the writing failed to deliver. Luckily for me, The Man With the Iron Fists is one such example of cinema that failed to live up to its potential. Please be forewarned that THERE WILL BE SPOILERS throughout my review of the movie. If you have yet to see it and would like the plot to be a surprise when you do, consider NOT reading further in this blog post.
The Title Was Inappropriate
The movie is titled after the main character of the story, the Blacksmith. The problem is the focus of the movie is on the other characters for the first half of the film. The Blacksmith doesn’t make a significant appearance until the second half of the movie. That would be acceptable if the first half of the film paved the way for the Blacksmith’s character to take a starring role, but it didn’t. When the so-called protagonist of the story finally gets some screen-time, he is still only a secondary character who does not battle the primary villains to avenge Gold Lion, recover the gold, or save the orphans from the Emperor’s gold-recovery team.
In terms of screen-time and the role the blacksmith plays as a character in the story, his being named the main character is simply not warranted. A better title for the movie would have been X-Blade, as Zen Yi is the character who avenges Gold Lion, his father, by journeying to Jungle Village, battling multiple attempts on his life by various hired goons, and ultimately fighting and killing Silver Lion to recover the Emperor’s gold.
The title The Man With the Iron Fists could still work, but the screenplay would have to be rewritten to reflect the more active role the Blacksmith would have to play in the movie to justify his being the title character. Read more about the importance of titles and why weak titles can upset viewers.
There Were Too Many Plot Holes
Plot holes are the result of underdeveloped ideas. There simply isn’t enough detail in the script to explain some person or event in the story and a “hole” is felt by the viewer. These cavities can lead to what are called logical fallacies, errors in reasoning. You actually need some thread of reasoning before it can become a tangled mess and, alas, The Man With the Iron Fists suffers from much more basic errors in writing.
Examples of the story’s weak writing include:
- The Poison Dagger: This character uses poisoned darts, not a dagger, to stealthily kill opponents. As a top advisor to the Emperor, it’s questionable that he would be able to disappear from duty and spend as much time as he does with Silver Lion without his absence being noticed. Moreover, his raspy voice and shocking head of pure white hair are qualities impossible to keep hidden under a cloak for months on end. Jack Knife has been searching for the Poison Dagger since his own almost-fatal run-in with the Dagger’s poison; it’s hard to believe that in the many years since their encounter, Jack Knife never heard rumors about the Dagger’s identity. Jack Knife’s only clue is the blueprints for a dart dispenser and mercury tipped darts. These clues lead him to the Blacksmith, the only weaponsmith who uses mercury in the area. However, no mention of the commissioning of this dart gun was mentioned earlier (and there were many opportunities afforded the film to slip it in with the other plans for weapons commissioned by the various clans).
- The Assassination of Gold Lion. Only TWO people in the Lion clan thought Silver Lion’s behavior was odd after the death of Gold Lion? What about those present at the battle where Gold Lion was assassinated by the Poison Dagger? Silver Lion wasn’t exactly subtle about gloating over Gold Lion’s corpse. Did all the Lions at that particular battle perish so none could be witness to Silver Lion’s betrayal? Finally, and most importantly, why would the clan NOT wait for Zen Yi’s return? As the son of the now-deceased leader and the most capable warrior in the clan, it doesn’t make sense for the clan not to wonder about his continued absence. Silver Lion’s enthused speech about the Lion clan being strong enough without Zen Yi may have won over the clansmen for the battle against the Hyena clan, but when months pass and Zen Yi still doesn’t return, surely more than two members became concerned. Once Zen Yi was in Jungle Village and the news spread, the Lion clan members STILL remained apathetic to Zen Yi’s lack of arrival at the clan’s headquarters. Silver Lion never hid the fact that he hired Bronze Body and Brass Body’s fight with Zen Yi was public.
- Zen Yi’s Escape and Convalescence. After Zen Yi is defeated by Brass Body and is about to receive the death blow, Zen Yi’s dying henchman manages to drop a roof on top of Brass Body. While Brass Body shrugs off the structure, the Blacksmith and his girlfriend whisk Zen Yi away down the alley and up into the Pink Blossom. Zen Yi manages to avoid detection for weeks by lying in bed at the Pink Blossom while the Blacksmith’s girlfriend attends to him. Later, when the Blacksmith is being tortured, Silver Lion reveals that he knows all about the Blacksmith’s prostitute girlfriend. The Blacksmith ultimately loses his arms due to his refusal to give up where Zen Yi is hidden. The question here is: How could Silver Lion NOT know where Zen Yi was? If Silver Lion were desperate to get Zen Yi, as he claims to be, why not storm the Pink Blossom or ask for them to hand Zen Yi over?
I understand some kung-fu action films are meant in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way where entertainment is paramount over logical consistency, and some cheesiness is actually intended. The overly dramatized gore and action were throw-backs to Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle, and especially Kill Bill type cinematography, but the intentionally melodramatic, corny acting was inconsistent, making the movie seem confused. At best the movie seemed to suffer from multiple personality disorder, unsure of what genre it was supposed to be.
Main Points Weren’t Developed
While missing main points created plot holes, the main points that were present were severely underdeveloped. I’ve written before about the types of evidence available for writers to use to support their main points and screenplay writing is no different. Flashbacks, dialogue, and cut-scenes are all ways plot and characters can be developed. The Man With the Iron Fists doesn’t take advantage of these techniques and the resulting story and characters are shallow and insincere.
- Madame Blossom was a fascinating character who’s thirst for power and gold and willingness to use sex and violence to attain it were well developed. We get hints as to her background when she gives an impassioned feminist speech to her brothel girls, but nothing that really indicates what horrible things happened to her as a young woman. Nothing that justifies her turning her back to an enemy and exposing herself to his blade in order to save a child. The act rang very insincere for her character.
- The Blacksmith. I can’t begin to convey how woefully underdeveloped this character was in the movie. The scenes where he was a negro in America were a start towards developing him as a three-dimensional human being, but nowhere near enough the development needed for a main character. Instead of his life back in Southern America, more attention should have been spent on his time in the monastery after washing ashore in China. DEFINITELY more scenes needed to be shot that depicted his relationship with his girlfriend. There were no emotional scenes between them. For the entirety of two minutes they were together on screen, he gave her the gold he earned for her and she put it into her jewelry box and smiled over it. The scenes depict his "girl" more like a gold digger who was using him. However, her death supposedly provided the Blacksmith the motivation for him to defeat Brass Body.
Irrelevant Points Were Developed
Writing a thorough, lengthy answer to the wrong question is one of the oldest tricks in a student’s repertoire of desperation when they see an essay question they don’t actually know the answer to. Take-home essays suffer from irrelevancy just as often as in-class essays do, but usually because the student used up all the relevant main points s/he had and needed to reach a set page limit. RZA could be considered a student as this was his first time directing a movie, but the stakes were much higher for a product like The Man With the Iron Fists than it is for a student trying to get another assignment out of the way.
As beautiful as the character development for Zen Yi was, it was for the WRONG MOVIE. For what it’s worth, his relationship was much more believable than the Blacksmith’s was. Jack Knife’s character was another one that was extremely well developed. A movie explaining Jack Knife’s past exploits would be thrilling, but he should not have received as much screen time and development as he did in The Man With the Iron Fists. That time would have been better spent flushing out the Blacksmith’s character and filling in the gaping holes in the plot line.
The Acting Was Bad Overall
If the screenplay consists of the main points, then acting consists of the stylistic elements present in writing. How well the paper is formatted, proper use of citation style conventions, and thorough proofreading affect how well received an essay will be by a reader. If the paper is so riddled with grammar and spelling errors that it is frustrating to read, no one will enjoy reading it. The same bad experience is guaranteed viewers of a movie with bad acting.
Suffice it to say that it was quite obvious RZA was not a professional actor just by his handling of the Blacksmith role. Not only was the narration and dialogue delivered in an emotionless, monotone voice, he had only two facial expressions: angry and in pain.
The Final Say
I would be remiss in my duties as a reviewer if I didn’t point out that there are things that were exceptionally well done in the movie. For example, the music and costumes were amazing. But the many flaws in the movie overshadowed its good merits. If The Man With the Iron Fists were an academic essay, it would not receive a passing grade. The writing is simply too poor for this movie to be successful. All the errors mentioned above could have and should have been caught at the proofreading stage, if not sooner. With a screenplay as badly flawed as this one, it’s a wonder the movie ever made it into theaters at all.