If the first commandment of Wu-Tang protocol is protecting your neck, then you'd think more people in this movie would be obeying it. Instead, they usually get their throats slit by huge knives that spring out of surprising hiding places fashioned by their nemeses. Like the kneecaps, for example.
Another thing you'd think would be commonplace but isn't: the hip-hop based martial arts film. Why, in a world that routinely cranks out enervating romantic comedies for Kate Hudson to star in, are there so few wild-eyed showcases for facekicking produced by the hip-hop world? That's a Venn diagram that's practically just two circles occupying the same space. By rights there should be a new one in theaters every other month. After all, how many times can you watch The Last Dragon or Romeo Must Die before you get itchy for something fresh? Many, it turns out. But it shouldn't have to be that way.
So it's nice to report that not only did RZA, hip-hop's most passionate martial arts ambassador, finally follow up his scores for Ghost Dog and the anime Afro Samurai with a directorial effort of his own, the finished product ain't bad at all. And by "ain't bad" I mean that there's a lot of extreme killing. You can thank gore-maestro Eli Roth in his capacity of producer and co-screenwriter for that, but you can thank RZA for the swagger.
When you're the director you also get to be the star, so RZA plays Blacksmith, who is a blacksmith. He's out to defend his village from the onslaught of rival gold-hungry warrior clans. He's aided and abetted by British soldier and voracious patron of prostitutes, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), brothel proprietor Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu) and upright fighter Zen Yi, The X-Blade (Rick Yune). And when a guy calling himself Crazy Hippo is eviscerated by Jack Knife's rotating blades of death, it counts as a formal "What's up?" to the next 80 minutes of frenzied murder.
The core of this kind of movie is never logical plotting or acting prowess (good thing, because the director-star has about one and a half facial expressions), it's the fighting, and here that fighting is much more stylized than, say, something like The Raid. It's less of a kick in the gut than it is a spectacle of wire work, flying kicks and the symmetrical flowery spray of blood. Every man in the cast who isn't RZA or Crowe sports some kind of giant wig, and at times it looks as though the fight choreography was inspired as much by Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Lady from Shanghai's hall of mirrors scene as it was by classic old-school martial arts titles. Pouring it on is the order of the day.
But none of that is a complaint. What's to complain about when you get shoe-swords and forearm spikes, slaughtery revenge and sword-wielding ninja hookers acrobatically taking out bad guys left and right? Nothing, that's what. Nothing at all.