Can RZA play the villain in every action B-movie? Will RZA play the villain in every action B-movie? Suddenly, it's a salient question. The Wu-Tang Clan mastermind and figurehead made his onscreen debut 15 years ago in Jim Jarmusch's existential-samurai-hitman movie Ghost Dog—a 46-second cameo in which he wears full camo and pointy rings, and says four words ("Ghost Dog: power, equality"). Since then, he's had a few memorable roles: as Bill Murray's foil in Jarmusch's Coffee & Cigarettes, as Seth Rogen's lunch-counter co-worker in Funny People, as Russell Crowe's junkie-impersonating undercover-cop colleague in American Gangster. After years of name-checking and sampling kung-fu epics on record, he even finally got to direct his own, the messy but satisfyingly absurd The Man With the Iron Fists, in 2012. He was on a full season of Californication, playing a character who for some reason was named Samurai Apocalypse. Soon, he'll be part of an elite police task force on the Fox summer-replacement cop drama Gang Related. But RZA's real cinematic calling, it turns out, might be as a cackling, mustache-twirling, underling-murdering supervillain in over-the-top foreign action movies. It's a good look for him.
You probably missed it, but the last movie Paul Walker finished making before he died hit theaters this past weekend. It's called Brick Mansions, and it has lots and lots of footage of Walker driving cars at reckless speeds and intentionally ramming them into things, which is about as uncomfortable to watch now as a Chris Benoit top-rope head-butt. The movie is a remake of the vastly superior 2004 French movie District B13, which itself was mostly an excuse to showcase the jump-kicking acumen and life-affirming grace of parkour pioneer David Belle. Belle is in Brick Mansions, too, playing the exact same character and executing the same ridiculous stunts, except this time the cameraman can't hold his shit steady.
Brick Mansions seems to exist because someone figured District B13 needed to be done exactly the same, except in half-broken English, filmed in a Montreal that's supposed to be Detroit instead of a Bucharest that's supposed to be Paris, and edited much more frantically. Both movies come from the action-movie conveyor belt of the mad Frenchman Luc Besson. District B13 director Pierre Morel went on to make the original Taken, while Camille Delamarre, who did the way-shittier Taken 2, got to direct the remake. (Delamarre's job description is apparently "do things Pierre Morel already did, but do them badly.") The plot here is the same: A gang leader in a walled-in, forgotten-by-the-authorities housing project has stolen a neutron bomb and aimed it at the center of the city, and a rooftop-jumping ex-con will have to team up with a tough but distrustful cop to stop him. The only real upgrade in Brick Mansions is in the casting of that evil gang leader. It's the man who produced "Protect Ya Neck," and yes, he does get to point out that cash rules everything around him.
As an actor, RZA is not as good as Bibi Narceri, the Frenchman who brought an oily, malevolent charisma to the original role. But in that first movie, we didn't get the joyous music-dork shock of seeing Bobby Digital presiding over vast anonymous-goon drug armies or speaking entirely in goofy punchlines. In Brick Mansions, he delivers his lines in the same rushed, marbled mutter he used when he was threatening to shatter your gall bladder with mathematical data. His character, Tremaine, is supposed to be Jamaican, and we only know this because he peppers his speech with "mon" and "bumbaclaat," and he has a fondness for paraphrasing Bob Marley ("Looks like I'm gonna have to shoot the sheriff and the deputy").
His character's arc makes no sense whatsoever—you get the sense that the writers forgot to remove that opening scene where he executes someone for no reason. Tremaine, we learn during one exposition-heavy dialog chunk, is a former military special-ops guy who went on to become an arms dealer and then a drug kingpin. He spends a good 20 percent of his screen time chopping up hot peppers, which I guess is shorthand for "cooking." He is a ridiculous character, and that is fine, because RZA is visibly having fun. He produced "Triumph." He gets to have fun.
RZA's having even more fun as LC, the villain of the new Thai movie The Protector 2, on VOD now and opening in theaters May 2. It's the first new movie in years that stars Tony Jaa, the babyfaced Muay Thai death-machine who exploded minds with his psychedelic flying-knee powers in 2003's peerless Ong-Bak. (RZA's choice in roles suggests that he spent the early '00s getting high and freaking out to the same foreign action movies as I was, which makes me feel good.) In 2005's The Protector, Jaa tore through Australia looking for the men who had kidnapped his adopted brother; his brother happened to be a baby elephant. The Protector had an extended tracking-shot fight scene that could make Cary Fukunaga and Matthew McConaughey weep with shame. And when you're watching that scene (seriously, for god's sake, watch it), keep in mind that Jaa is fighting is way through these hordes so that he can find his elephant.
After Ong-Bak and The Protector, Jaa seemed likely to become the evolutionary Jackie Chan. Instead, he went slightly crazy while directing an Ong-Bak sequel, retreating into the jungle and refusing to talk to studio reps. Jaa's studio took the movie away from him, and he went off to become a Buddhist monk. So The Protector 2, his first movie since returning from the monastery, is something of a return to form. It's also a possible goodbye to Thai movies, as Jaa is making his way into the wider world, showing up in movies like the next Fast & Furious sequel and a couple of Dolph Lundgren joints. Thailand's martial arts movies have long relied on bone-crunching action with insane stunts and no wires or special effects, so it's a bit weird to see that The Protector 2 is full of terrible CGI effects, from pixelated explosions t0 green-screen fight locations that look like Mortal Kombat levels. But it's still, at heart, a simple story about a boy and his elephant. At the beginning of The Protector 2, that elephant gets stolen again. This time, the man who steals the elephant is the RZA.
RZA's best line in The Protector 2: "You've become a pain in my ass over your fuckin' little elephant. Who would suspect that your poor little elephant could be turned into [dramatic pause] a bomb?" There's no third-act turnaround for LC, the broadest, most hilarious bad guy you're likely to see on a movie screen this year.In many ways, he's the exact same character RZA played in Brick Mansions: the incongruous tailored suits, the world-domination schemes that don't even make a tiny bit of sense, the untold numbers of henchmen at his disposal, the dead-eyed killer girlfriends. The difference with LC, though, is that when said girlfriend tells him that he should flee a battle, he tells her this: "I love you, and I will die for you. But I will never fucking lose. Because I. Don't. Lose." He says this while choking her. To death.
LC is a character so dastardly and despicable that silent-movie audiences might have considered his whole thing to be a bit much. He plots international chaos and kidnaps master fighters, forcing them to battle each other to death for no reason. He turns poor little elephants into bombs. He keeps a diamond-encrusted toothpick in his mouth for the entire movie. (He also fights Jaa twice, a tremendously ballsy thing to do when you consider that Jaa's kicks look like they could kill you real-life dead.) And—big spoiler coming here—when LC dies, he does it while clinging to elephant tusks that have been transformed into missiles, going out screaming in a fiery CGI blaze. It's glorious. If Wu-Tang's internal debates persist, and RZA is forced to abandon rap and spend the rest of his days playing snarling, unbelievable villains, it'll be sad, but I'll be OK with it.
Photo from The Protector 2.
The Concourse is Deadspin's home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter:@DSconcourse.