At some point, deep into middle age, RZA decided that he wanted to be a B-level action-movie star. This is an absurd thing. RZA is one of the greatest rap producers of all time. He’s the mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan, the favorite rap group of just about everyone who doesn’t listen to that much rap music. He’s the reason you know who Method Man and Ghostface Killah are, and the reason you can’t make a W with two hands without thinking of sword-clash noises and mournful violins. He famously grew up in the grindhouses of Times Square, absorbing the lessons of the kung-fu movies he’d watch over and over, finding ways to bring those larger-than-life ideas into the rap music he also loved. And these days, he’s making his own grindhouse movies. There’s something inspirational about that.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s commercial momentum had already slowed by the time RZA showed up for his first film role, briefly saluting Forrest Whitaker in 1999’s Ghost Dog. Since then, he’s racked up 32 acting credits, some of them in honest-to-god good movies (American Gangster, that scene in Coffee & Cigarettes with Bill Murray). He berated Seth Rogen in Funny People. He called Robert Downey Jr. a “funky motherfucker” in Due Date. He played a character named Samurai Apocalypse on nine episodes of Californication. And he did it all while delivering every line in the same rushed mutter that, combined with his inscrutable syntax, has made his rap verses cult-comedy gold. (“Crazy as Shapiro! / Multiply myself 10 times standing next to zero! /And snap my fingers like the Fonnnnnnz!”) He’s pushed himself into the movie universe through sheer charisma and force of will.
But his ideal corner of the movie universe remains half-shitty, half-awesome low-budget action movies. He fought Tony Jaa in The Protector 2. He forged uneasy bonds with Paul Walker in Brick Mansions. He played a blind ninja master in GI Joe: Retaliation. And after years of trying, he finally made his masterpiece with 2012’s The Man With the Iron Fists. That’s still the only movie he’s ever directed, and if he never makes another one, his legacy is safe. Iron Fists is RZA’s stab at the sort of grisly kung-fu period epic he grew up loving, and it is beautiful in its ridiculousness. It has rivers of digital gore, Russell Crowe killing people with a crazily elaborate super-knife, and the pro wrestler Batista turning his own skin into brass. It’s an insane, heightened comic-book world, and RZA fit himself right into it, playing a runaway-slave blacksmith who’d come to China and replaced his own severed forearms with big metal clubs. It’s not a great movie, maybe, but it is a fucking badass one, and its mere existence feels like a minor miracle.
The movie took a box-office nosedive, though, and no, the world was not exactly fiending for a sequel. But we got one anyway: Last month, a direct-to-DVD joint that showed up on Netflix at the same time as it became commercially available. (The first one still isn’t on Netflix, and I’d like to know why in the hell not.) The Man With the Iron Fists 2 was made on a fraction of the budget of the original, which itself wasn’t exactly made with Transformers money. Director Roel Reine is a guy who specializes in straight-to-DVD sequels of forgotten theatrical movies: The Marine 2, The Scorpion King 3. But with all that in mind, it’s still a whole lot more fun than you’d expect.
The RZA, naturally, gets most of the credit for this movie being any good: He wrote the story, co-wrote the screenplay, and returns as the blacksmith. In the opening scene, he grabs one assailant’s arrow out of thin air and throws it through another’s head. RZA also co-wrote the movie’s score, which means we get to see Chinese villages running into war set to a dusty NYC rap remix of a Sergio Leone spaghetti-Western soundtrack. The movie doesn’t have quite the colorful cast that the first one did, but we still get a double-amputee archer and a girl named Innocence who represents innocence. It’s pretty great.
The movie’s villain is an evil mine owner who executes his slowest miners every day, but still never seems to run out of labor. He’s also a kung fu master who makes speeches like this: “It takes more than bad intent to kill me. The stars must align, the birds must swim, the fish must fly before I will die.” When people complain about having to use dull tools in their mining, he uses one to cut a guy’s head off, just to prove that the tools work okay. It would be great if RZA were the hero, but he’s just the drifter who literally floats through town and gets conscripted into the rebel alliance. The real hero is Li Kung, played by 21 Jump Street (the show, not the movie) veteran Dustin Nguyen. He’s not particularly interesting. But every time RZA shows up, swinging his long arms around all crazily, the movie crackles to life. A martial arts student for years, he acquits himself well enough in action scenes that you sometimes forget the novelty that that’s the motherfucking RZA up there onscreen, killing people by clapping his metal hands on their heads. But the novelty is also one of the best things this movie has going for it. The guy can keep making cheesed-out flicks like this for the rest of his life, and I won’t complain.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Flash Point | The Way of the Dragon | Skyfall | Chocolate | Dirty Mary Crazy Larry | Iron Monkey | XXX | Headhunters | The Running Man | Project A | Homefront | Drug War | Robocop | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport|Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone | Fearless | Red Dawn| Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning| District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins |Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master