What do you get when you mix a former member of the Wu Tang Klan, Kung Fu, and Quentin Tarantino’s production skills? “The Man With the Iron Fists” is what. The new Kung Fu thriller, set for release in theaters November 2, is not only rapper RZA’s directorial debut, but also marks his first time co-writing and starring in a major feature film.
Working alongside an all-star cast, including such heavyweights as Russell Crowe and Lucy Lui, RZA plays a humble blacksmith turned lethal martial artist who helps to defend his village against a rising fleet of warriors, assassins, and a rogue war hero. Set in 19th century feudal China, the movie affords him the opportunity to live out his childhood fantasy of playing a martial arts hero.
“I’ve fantasized about being a martial artist since I was a kid,” he reveals.
Still, the hip hop trailblazer’s ties to a Kung Fu thriller might seem to some an unlikely union. Having gained his fame as a member of the group Rolling Stone once called “the best rap group ever,” RZA’s battles have usually been set to beats. However, the multifaceted artist shares that he has been an avid Kung Fu junkie since the late 70s. In fact, when the Wu Tang Clan formed in 1993, its name was derived from one of RZA’s favorite Kung Fu flicks: “Shaolin and Wu Tang.”
Born Robert Diggs, from the time he was 9 years old the Brooklyn native lived and breathed martial arts films, from the Wuxia (movies with Chinese martial arts) to the Jidaigeki genre (Japanese films featuring samurai, craftsmen etc.) and beyond. It was after seeing the Shaw Brothers film, “The 36 Chambers of Shaolin,” that his passion for martial arts films was significantly heightened. RZA muses that he began to recognize the similarities between the movie and his life.
“‘36 Chambers of Shaolin’ is about a guy who is a student and there’s oppression going on,” he explains.
“As a student he feels compelled to be a part of the revolution, and eventually he has to flee to Shaolin. On the way his friend flees with him and eventually sacrifices his life for him. So I’m seeing brotherhood. I’m seeing loyalty. I’m seeing the fight against oppression. These types of things I’m feeling in my own life, in my own neighborhood—being together with my crew, being with my brothers, and fighting against the day-to-day struggles of life and what we feel to be oppression in the projects.”
In 1993 when the Wu Tang Clan debuted their first album, which they entitled “Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers),” it was a way of paying tribute to the movie.
Kung Fu movies quickly became an escape for RZA, who would go to theaters and float effortlessly into a different world. Fast forward to the present, the real world where RZA would discover that actually directing a film—his own film—was not an easy process. “The Man With the Iron Fists” is a project 6 years in the making. RZA admits that he was not the best screenwriter at the time the story idea was conceived, so he relied on the tutelage of those close to him in the film industry. Although RZA created the story, the film was actually co-written by his friend Eli Roth, whose credits include directing “Hostel” and acting in “Inglorious Bastards.” The movie was produced under the guidance of award winning film director Quentin Tarantino.
I was advised by Quentin Tarantino to write my ideas down,” says RZA.
“I wrote [‘The Man With the Iron Fists’] into a 90 page script. I wasn’t very good at writing screenplays—I hadn’t studied it; I wrote songs.”
In the movie’s infancy, production companies initially shot down the script, suggesting that the characters needed more development. After collaborating with Roth, who expressed an interest in the story early on, the script was expanded and pitched again.
My buddy Eli Roth heard about the story and thought it would make a great movie and he came on board,” says RZA.
He took it to some people, some producers, and they couldn’t really see the vision so he took the 90 page script and rewrote it into a 130 page screenplay. Then they had the vision and saw what it was.”
Once he had a winning script RZA needed to be certain that his directorial skills were up to par. After studying filmmaking under the well-seasoned eye of Tarantino for 6 years, he looked to his mentor for the green light.
“I had to be ready to direct,” RZA stresses.
“Tarantino was in there, but he wasn’t going to let me take any job unless I was ready… I asked him after 2 years and he said, ‘Bobby, I don’t think you’re ready.’ I asked him after 4 years; he still didn’t think I was ready. But after the sixth year he said, ‘Bobby, I think you’re ready!’ Eli came to him and told him what we had… and he gave us his blessings and we went for it.”
Testimony and evidence have shown how instrumental the Wu Tang Clan and martial arts movies have been in allowing RZA to express himself. Both have now led him to this moment, the big screen, which in his opinion is the ultimate form of expression.
“When I saw ‘Kill Bill’ (Tarantino’s award-winning film), I saw the lane I wanted to go in; I saw something that showed me that music is just one expression of myself,” he reflects.
“Clothing and designing is one expression, writing is another. But there is a medium where I can take all those expressions and put into one package, and that’s filmmaking.”
RZA has arrived, and all signs point to go. Set to be released in theaters this week, “The Man With the Iron Fists” serves as impressive evidence of what this talented artist can do when he puts his mind to it.