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Saturday, November 3, 2012 - Page updated at 12:00 p.m.

Movie review
'The Man With the Iron Fists' spatters and sputters

By Roger Moore
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

The WuTang Clan rapper RZA, aka Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, takes on acting, writing, directing, composing and rapping duties on his film, "The Man With the Iron Fists." That makes him, what, a quintuple threat?

But a threat to what? He's a terrible actor, an incompetent narrator, a mediocre writer and paint-by-numbers director.

His N-word and F-bomb laced music — he participated in three songs on the soundtrack — we'll leave to others to parse. But as a movie maker, he's strictly a non-starter.

And he's a guy with a serious samurai Jones — he had a samurai cameo in Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog"; popped up on "Afro Samurai" on TV; and has a recurring role, "Samurai Apocalypse," on TV's "Californication." So the movie, which torture-porn king Eli Roth helped him get on the screen, is a variation of the "Blind Swordsman" series of Japanese spatter films. Set in China, with no samurai.

RZA plays a narrating blacksmith caught up in a power struggle between clans in some late-19th-century fantasy China out of '70s grindhouse martial-arts movies. Characters fly at each other, practice exotic forms of kung fu, turn to bronze when it suits them and hack each other to bits in epic brawls where only the minions and villains bleed out.

The unnamed blacksmith, an ex-American slave, has his arms lopped off at one point. And since Quentin Tarantino "introduces" the movie with a trailer to his "Django Unchained," think of this genre-and-history bender as "Django Unarmed."

Hey, when the tag-line in your ads is "You can't spell Kung Fu without F and U," you're playing it for laughs. It's a pity there aren't any.

Though Russell Crowe's first entrance, playing a plump and dapper English slasher named "Mr. Knife, but you can call me 'Jack,' " is worth a chuckle. It's a good look for playing police inspector Javert in "Les Miserables," though it shows the Oscar winner's leading-man days are 50 pounds in the past. Crowe has never given a worse performance, but RZA was in Crowe's "The Next Three Days," so maybe that was a favor being repaid.

The trouble with virtually every rapper to make the leap to acting is how much their musical guise limits their screen range. RZA could never be in a serious period piece, because he's too modern, too street. Reading his own narration, he sounds like a rapper reading his favorite Chinese folk tale. Badly. And it's badly written, too.

"Meanwhile," he says, stating the obvious, "Zen Yi was getting closer to Jungle Village."

Jungle Village is where this ax and sword and poison-dart showdown between The Lion Clan, The Hyena Clan, The Wolf Clan, The Eleven Rodents, The Gemini Killers, etc., is to take place. Zen Yi, clumsily played by Rick (formerly Ricky) Yune, is the son of a murdered clan leader who is traveling in his Suit of Knives to Jungle Village for revenge — and to interfere with the theft of some government bullion. That's what has brought Jack Knife there. That feud, which requires lots of weapons, has been helping the blacksmith pay off his prostitute girlfriend's debts to the madam (Lucy Liu) at her brothel. But that feud is how the blacksmith becomes Django Unarmed.

We've never seen Crowe romp with an orgy of Chinese hookers before — "Let's pretend we're Catholic" — and never seen him eviscerate a foe with his twirling Swiss Army knife-pistol. So there's that.

And on the page, the various silly ingredients suggest a funnier, more over-the-top genre spoof than RZA delivers. His narrator mutters about one group having a ... let's call it "a 'Fuddrucking' Gatling Gun, and more bullets than China has rice." Liu's cunning and deadly madam warns swordsmen of traps that will "make women of you." All the members of The Lion Clan have long, streaked wigs and love playing with their manes.

But it's more tedious than fun, a lurching, stumbling movie that botches most details and dwells on others — any involving lopped-off arms, legs and heads; viscera; and cauterizing wounds.

It's easy to see why these sword, sorcery and spatter pictures were never more than cult films in the first place. Still, it'll be interesting to see if RZA can break the rapper's curse — minor screen stardom causes him to start using his real name, an all-but-forgotten bit player two years later. See "Common" and "Fifty Cent" for proof.

With pals like Roth and Tarantino, RZA already has a leg up — though with "Fists" he whacks that sucker off and lets us watch the stump bleed and bleed.

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