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Actor-director RZA in a scene from "The Man with the Iron Fists." (Universal Pictures)
Lucy Liu in a scene from "The Man with the Iron Fists." (Universal Pictures)
Russell Crowe in a scene from "The Man with the Iron Fists." (Universal Pictures)
RZA, right, in a scene from "The Man with the Iron Fists." (Universal Pictures)
Rick Yune in a scene from "The Man with the Iron Fists." (Universal Pictures)
CD cover for "The Man with the Iron Fists" soundtrack. (Soul Temple Entertainment)
Call it a case of life imitating martial arts.
On the Shanghai set of the kung fu saga “The Man With the Iron Fists” last year, muscle-bound pro wrestler David Bautista and tae kwon do expert Rick Yune had come to loggerheads over how to best enact a fight sequence. The actors, portraying mortal enemies, seemed about ready to trade ax-hand strikes. Only one person could steer the action back toward the peace path: the movie’s writer, director and costar known as RZA, a hip-hop renaissance man who was the musical brains behind the Grammy-winning, multi-platinum-selling rap collective Wu-Tang Clan.
No stranger to transforming chaos into chi energy, RZA (government name: Robert Diggs) regaled Yune and Bautista with stories about his nine-man hip-hop crew’s legendary infighting. “I used some of the Wu-Tang stories to defuse situations,” RZA recalls. “I told ’em, ‘It’s natural. When steel rubs against steel, it makes both blades sharper.’”
He should know. RZA’s directorial cutlass has been keened through years of up-close exposure to some of Hollywood’s sharpest weapons. The result is a $15-million passion project hitting theaters Friday that almost no one could have expected from a rapper-turned-first-time-filmmaker: a period martial arts spaghetti western featuring ninja prostitutes, a villain with body-morphic metal armor and, yes, RZA as a blacksmith with hands of iron.
For the last five years, Quentin Tarantino has served as RZA’s de facto mentor and provides “Man With the Iron Fist” with a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” billing. But as well, the RZA-rector (as he is known professionally) received a master class in filmmaking by taking small acting parts and cadging tips from his directors, including Paul Haggis, Judd Apatow and Jim Jarmusch.
Ridley Scott schooled RZA in camera coverage in between shots on the set of the British director’s “American Gangster.” Torture porn maestro Eli Roth (the director of such horror breakthroughs as “Hostel” and “Cabin Fever”) co-wrote “The Man With the Iron Fists” and helped godfather RZA’s movie’s studio distribution deal with Universal Pictures as a producer.
And Russell Crowe, RZA’s Oscar-winning homie (plus costar in “American Gangster” and Haggis’ 2010 crime drama “The Next Three Days”), agreed to sign onto the project. He portrays gleefully malicious English soldier Jack Knife, the guy with a whirling machete-gun, a mysterious agenda and a libido the size of Mt. Everest who engages in a menage a quatre with three ladies of the evening in a custom-designed S&M boudoir.
“I didn’t know that side of him,” Roth says, “but obviously RZA did, this fun, goofy side of Russell Crowe. He can actually be very silly. That’s what we were able to bring out of him with this wild character.”>
Actor Russell Crowe, left, with actor-director RZA, center, and screenwriter Eli Roth on the set of “The Man with the Iron Fists.” (Universal Pictures)
The rap producer’s signature innovation has always been to connect the cultural dots. His game-changing early ’90s musical output grafted the chop-socky ’70s kung fu flicks that RZA devoured as a kid (providing him much-needed refuge from his hard-bitten Staten Island upbringing) onto a framework of ’90s New York hard-core hip-hop. In addition to providing a lyrical taxonomy of the Shaolin kung fu movie canon, the classic albums he produced for Wu-Tang and its individual clansmen, including Method Man, Raekwon and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, spill over with references to the radical racial politics of the Five Percent Nation of Islam and Mafia movies as well as lashings of Taoism, helping forever change the face of hip-hop culture with a healthy dose of Eastern influence.
After being enlisted by Tarantino to provide the soundtrack for his 2003 kung fu revenge caper “Kill Bill,” RZA became a regular presence on the director’s sets and has visited every Tarantino production since then.
“I started noticing he was checking how you do it: Me working with the cinematographer, how you do a fight scene in a practical sense,” Tarantino told The Times of RZA’s M.O. in 2010. “He’d sit on a box somewhere, writing on a sketch pad and taking it all in.”
When the “Reservoir Dogs” auteur introduced RZA to Roth, the two quickly bonded and in 2007 set out in earnest to write “The Man With the Iron Fists.” Over the course of half a decade, the rap superstar looked to Tarantino as his filmmaking sifu, assuming a mentor-mentee/master-disciple relationship straight out of one of RZA’s beloved kung fu epics.>
RZA is a hip-hop musician turned filmmaker whose directorial debut, “The Man with the Iron Fists,” opens Friday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
“I kept asking Quentin, ‘Am I ready?’” RZA remembers. “First time, I wasn’t ready. Second time, I wasn’t ready…. Eli and I finished the screenplay and Quentin came back from ‘Inglourious Basterds’ and said, ‘I think you’re ready.’ That’s when we went full force ahead.”
But selling the studio on the project was no sure bet. “We knew there were going to be certain prejudices against a rapper because there’s a whole expectation of a lifestyle and a behavior,” Roth says.
Marc Abraham and Eric Newman, who have a long-standing producing deal at Universal, joined the project, and their first stop had the rap star pitching the project to top Universal executives. According to Abraham, RZA immediately won them over with the just-so-crazy-this-might-work cohesion of his proposal and the pledge to bring the film in for a shoestring $10-million budget (the studio eventually kicked in an additional $5 million in post-production fees).
“Even hardened people whose job is to say no and who are reluctant to say yes, he seduced them,” Abraham says. “It required real vision to do what he did. He’s a genius.”
Set in Jungle Village in mythical 19th century China, “The Man With the Iron Fists” opens with rival tribal factions ramping up for war — a predicament that forces the town’s humble Blacksmith (RZA) to create ever more elaborate tools of destruction for both sides. The body count soon draws the interest of a British commando (Crowe), who sets up camp at the town’s brothel run by the cunning Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). Despite his wish to flee the chaos, the Blacksmith endeavors to defend his village from the Lion Clan, a barbarian horde that includes Brass Body (Bautista), an indestructible warrior with metal skin. To accomplish the seemingly impossible task before him, the Blacksmith must team up with Jack Knife and inject magic into metallurgy to craft his most powerful weapon: a pair of iron hands.
RZA’s task as a first-time director was almost as daunting, requiring him to pull 18-hour days throughout the 10-week shoot on location in China. According to Roth, the director’s detail consciousness didn’t end after principal photography wrapped. “This isn’t an album. This is a three-year process,” he says. “You need that level of complete dedication the whole time.”
“I wondered if RZA was going to have the stamina or patience,” Roth continues. “In fact, he only grew more focused, more intense and more meticulous as time went on.”>
The CD cover for “The Man with the Iron Fists,” with songs by various artists from the original motion picture soundtrack. (Soul Temple Entertainment / Associated Press)
That dedication also extends to promoting the film. This month, RZA embarked on an Iron Fists Tour, hitting 11 cities including New York, Los Angeles and Detroit. The concerts showcase the rapper-director along with other special guests performing Wu-Tang hits as well as music from the film’s soundtrack (which he also produced, featuring music from the Black Keys and Kanye West) in support of the movie.
Even though “Man With the Iron Fists” has yet to gross a single dollar at the box office, Hollywood seems to have already sanctified RZA. He recently attached himself to three new movie projects including a Genghis Khan biopic written by “Conan the Barbarian” director John Milius and a gangster thriller called “No Man’s Land.”
And though a number of peers in the music industry discouraged him from dropping hip-hop for filmdom, RZA feels that “The Man With the Iron Fists” has smashed the glass ceiling for rappers turned moviemakers.
“I think people are going to realize I’m a real director,” RZA says. “I’m not a director by accident. I studied! I found the wavelength to do it.”
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