In the runup to the opening of RZA‘s The Man With the Iron Fists, some wondered whether Russell Crowe‘s part in the film amounted to a glorified cameo. In fact, it’s RZA who’s barely in his own movie. That might be for the best. Sleepy-eyed and retiring, RZA isn’t much of an actor. His star turn, as it were — he does play the film’s title character — may be the shyest action hero ever to hit the screen.

Even so, The Man With the Iron Fists is RZA’s movie through and through, a ragged amalgamation of all the stuff the Wu Tang Clan leader has cheered in his work since the Wu broke out in 1992. Shaw Brothers kung fu movies, westerns and Ennio Morricone scores, and the films of Quentin Tarantino leave deep bite marks in RZA’s story of a Chinese village populated by animal-themed clans, and the inevitable conflict they create.

The result is a big, colorful mess; it’s like watching a kid make some dream machine out of a thousand Legos. The Man With the Iron Fists isn’t good, by any conventional standard, but it is one hundred percent honest, and is sometimes more fun than any Hong Kong knockoff Hollywood has churned out in recent memory.

RZA is a blacksmith pressured into making weapons for gangs that roam his adopted home village. But he’s in the background through most of the movie as we see clans such as the Lion, Wolf, Black Widow fighting over the chance to take over a shipment of government gold. The blacksmith’s background is striking, and weirdly evocative of the forthcoming Django Unchained. Even so, his story isn’t one you’d want to hang a movie on.

Eli Roth produces and helped out with the script, but that pro polish doesn’t always show. The movie meanders all over the place with in-fighting between clans, familial betrayal, and events that you might forget just as soon as a scene finishes.Voiceover holds much of the movie together — that’s where RZA really does his acting work — and I get the sense that the voiceover is meant to evoke old tendencies in action movie storytelling. It does that, at least. But evoking is one thing, and succeeding on its own is another. Here and there, RZA gets a well-earned laugh out of the combo of V/O and image, but not frequently.

Enter Crowe, as a violent outsider with exotic weaponry, prodigious appetites, and a not so subtle skill with sex toys. He doesn’t have much more of a story, but he’s got star power, and owns the film. Crowe takes big bites out of every scene, and it’s a joy to see him play when little seems to be riding on his work.

Credit is due, too, to Byron Mann as primary bad guy Silver Lion; Mann plays the big-haired villain like Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips starring in an off-broadway musical version of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. I get the sense that RZA wanted another co-star, wrestler Dave Bautista, to be his own Bolo Yeung, which just isn’t possible. But I still got a kick out of Bautista playing the Shaw Brothers version of Colossus from the X-Men.

Bautista is one of many established fighters who fill out roles, but the fights are largely as forgettable as some of the characters, and that’s a problem. No one goes into this movie looking for a killer script, but one binding requirement is that audiences should be dying to see repeats of the fight scenes. There’s plenty of violence and gore (practical and digital), wild weapons, and a lot of motion, but only a couple encounters are ones memorable enough to talk about afterward. One, involving so-called Gemini Killers who lock yin/yang swords and execute weird feats of violent balance, is a post-credits talking point. But that’s due to its very silly nature,  and not for the achievement in choreography or performance. Many fights feel like rehearsals.

The parts of the film that do work have a raw entertainment value, and there are moments of soul, where RZA’s respect for the culture of martial arts shines through. And I admire the way that RZA acts like the culture of weird, “everything plus the kitchen sink” Asian action movies hasn’t been worn thin and abused by major studios. He proves that the weird might still prevail, even as he proves that imitation can sometimes only be basic flattery.

The Man With the Iron Fists feels like the movie that RZA has wanted to make for thirty years; like it crams in all the strange ideas he’s thrown in a notebook for decades. But that’s not a movie; that’s a mix tape. I hope that RZA’s got all that stuff out of his system, and that if he makes another it can become something more than a fan’s brainstorming session committed to film.

/Film score: 5.5 out of 10

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Russ Fischer woke up recently and realized he lives in Austin. (twitter.com/russfischer) or (russ.slashfilm at gmail.com)

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