(On Cable TV, September 2013) Writer/director/actor RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists is a welcome throwback to the historical martial-arts fantasy subgenre, with good performances from people you wouldn’t necessarily expect in that kind of film. While the back-story of RZA’s historical universe is complex, the plot itself becomes a well-assorted series of fights between characters, often with super-natural powers. RZA himself is a bit dull in the honorific title role, but the film’s most remarkable performances come from scene-stealing Russell Crowe (as “Jack Knife”, a hedonistic western knife-fighter) and Lucy Liu (as a bordello madam not to be crossed), alongside such notables as Rick Yune, Cung Le and Byron Mann. It’s all meant in good fun, although the strong gore factor takes away a bit of the enjoyment for viewers who like their fighting action to be a bit cleaner. While The Man with the Iron Fists isn’t all that special in its own subgenre, it’s an endearing attempt as a pastiche, and the American origin of the film doesn’t really betray its indebtedness to an entire genre of Asian cinema. It may best be seen by viewers who, like me, used to like a lot of that stuff and are now looking for some more.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) Following a familiar formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but incompetently following a familiar formula seems even more inexcusable than in trying something new. So it is that cheap direct-to-video Dragon Eyes manages to botch a dirt-simple “stranger comes to clean up town” plot template. It’s not even particularly subtle in its presentation, as a sturdy asian protagonist walks in the middle of a black/latino gang-infested Louisiana neighborhood and starts picking fights with the local criminal element. We eventually learn the back-story, but what initially seems like directorial stylishness eventually reveals itself to be pure incoherence. Simply put, Dragon Eyes goes through the motions so automatically that crucial plot developments are forgotten and simply aren’t shown on-screen: the result is a story that is carried forward on pure assumed plotting knowledge: The viewers have to fill out missing scenes in their heads, since what is shown on-screen seeks to skip ahead (or back) without delivering the basic narrative building blocks. From time to time, various visual flourishes keep our interest: Some action scenes (including a few lengthy fighting shots) are directed with some ambition, the opening credits are fine, some stylish freeze-frames introduce the characters (alas, without much final impact) and a few of the actors are clearly too good for the material given to them: Cung Le manages to remain intriguing as the dull protagonist, but Jean-Claude Van Damme steals the film as a grizzled mentor, while Peter Weller has a bit of fun as a criminal kingpin, and Crystal Mantecón is beautiful enough to make an impression despite a woefully underwritten love-interest role. Dragon Eyes quickly becomes an irritant, a film that doesn’t quite know how to tell a basic story despite limiting itself to the barest bones of a narrative. It begins in confusion, advances in incoherence and finishes without a satisfying wrap-up. It ultimately doesn’t distinguish itself from countless other basic low-budget action films except for the fact that it doesn’t even deliver minimal viewing satisfaction.