Rapper turned actor-director RZA in a scene from "The Man With the… (Associated Press )
In a scene in the ultra-violent kung fu saga “The Man With the Iron Fists” – a movie written, directed and co-starring Wu-Tang Clan’s founding father and sonic architect the RZA – the hip-hop superstar-turned-filmmaker portrays a runaway slave. He survives a shipwreck and washes up on a rocky shoreline in China more dead than alive and is discovered by a band of kung fu monks. These Wu Chi disciples bring the character back to health and set him on a righteous path, teaching him philosophy, acupuncture pressure points, discipline – the way of the Wu.
If the monks sequence in “Man With the Iron Fists” seems like a metaphor for how the Tao of the Wu forever changed the rapper-director’s destiny, that’s because, well, it is. “To me, that philosophy part had to be in there, yo,” RZA said. “That’s me paying super respect.”
Famously, the RZA was running wild on the streets of Brooklyn and Staten Island, selling drugs and dodging bullets, before he went on to Grammy-winning, platinum-selling musical success (to say nothing of his new career as a filmmaker, detailed in a recent Calendar story). Until, that is, RZA connected the cultural dots between the chop-socky kung fu flicks he used to binge-watch and early '90s New York hip-hop to split the cultural atom by forming Wu-Tang Clan.
“Man With the Iron Fists” is certainly the most ambitious movie ever directed by a hip-hop star. Filmed entirely on location in China, the film is jam-packed with hallucinatory martial arts sequences and stars Oscar-winner Russell Crowe as a sex-crazed English mercenary with a whirling machete gun. But it is indisputably a piece with RZA’s Wu-Tang oeuvre. Moreover, the film is shot through with references to Wu-Tang Clan.
On a recent morning in Hollywood, the RZA was kind enough to break some of them down for Pop & Hiss.
Crowe’s character, Jack Knife, for one, was inspired by Wu-Tang’s most colorful member, the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The connection with Dirt McGirt is made implicit given Knife’s gusto for booze and weakness for women – in one sequence, the character is shown engaging in a menage a quatre, frolicking with no fewer than three ladies of the evening in a custom-designed S&M boudoir. And in another scene, a classic banger from ODB soundtracks the moment when Crowe’s character swings into outré violent action.
“Me and Russell got into a tight spot when time was running out,” RZA recalled. “I said, ‘Look, ODB, who was one of the backdrops for this character, came in [to the studio] so late and drunk. He did the song in one take – the song ‘Shame on a Nigga.’ To this day, the [expletive] is fat.”
“You know what Russell did next? ‘My name is Mr. Knife…I have come to your fine village…’ – he killed that in one take!” he continued.
Wu-Tang Clan lore also came in handy when two actors grew so angry with one another on the set that they almost started trading round-house kicks for real. Muscle-bound pro wrestler David Bautista and Taekwondo expert Rick Yune had come to loggerheads over how to enact a fight sequence. And the only person who could put them back on the peace path was RZA.
He regaled them with stories of Wu-Tang’s legendary in-fighting – how the RZA-rector himself frequently used to butt heads with Method Man and how two other Clansmen hated each other's guts until they were united in Wu.
“I used some of the Wu-Tang stories to diffuse situations,” RZA explained. “Me and Meth always used to argue. It’s natural. When steel rubs against steel, it makes both blades sharper. Raekwon and Ghostface started off as enemies in the neighborhood. They grew to be best friends after joining the Wu-Tang.”
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