At first glance my decision to watch The Man With The Iron Fists Two doesn't make any sense. After all, I didn't enjoy the first one that much, and since straight to video sequels are almost always worse than the original you would think that I would employ the "fool me once, shame on you..." principle and stay away. But this was a unique case because I had a legitimate reason to think that the low budget follow up might correct all of the original's flaws.
You see, the first Iron Fist's biggest problem was that it was too ambitious - it was a story about several warring clans, each of which had complicated animal mascots and animal powers, and each clan had a complicated back story that explained who they were allied with and who they were sworn enemies against... It was made by a first time director and it showed, because it had ten movies worth of cool ideas all jammed next to each other, and the constant exposition and world building kept stepping on the film's action sequences, which were theoretically it's raison d'etre.
My hunch that the sequel would have a more manageable level of ambition proved to be true, but alas, the film overcorrected and ended up being generic. The only character to carry over from the original is Thaddeus, the titular metal-handed man. Thaddeus is a blacksmith who is wandering around China trying to achieve inner peace but who keeps finding himself in situations where he has no choice but to fight. As the movie opens Thaddeus is minding his own business when he is attacked by a gang of thugs, and at the end of the fight the badly hurt blacksmith is kicked into a nearby river. Eventually he floats downstream to a small town where a cruel mine-owner keeps terrorizing his workers. At first Thaddeus is unable to offer any help to the miners as he is still healing, and as he gets better he is unwilling to offer any help because he is sworn to peace. Of course, he eventually begins to make weapons for the noble miners, and ultimately fights on their side in the final showdown. It's not a bad plot, per se, but it is basically a carbon copy of your classic Clint Eastwood western, or maybe your average episode of the Kung Fu television show.
The first film was redeemed somewhat by it's action scenes, which were gruesome but entertaining. The sequel achieves that same gruesomeness, but it doesn't quite nail the entertaining part. The Man With the Iron Fists Two wants to ape a classic kung fu film, but it doesn't get there, mostly because it has too many affectations of the modern American action film – there are too many fast cuts and flashy angles, and the film's emphasis on brutality undercuts the balletic beauty of it's hand to hand combat scenes. Worst of all, it pays lip service to higher themes (like the spiritual nature of Thaddeus' quest) without ever treating them seriously enough to justify their inclusion. Of course, almost all of the classic Hong Kong films that were built around Buddhist characters made those characters renounce their vows of nonviolence so that they could open up a can of whoop ass on an infidel who was asking for it, but the trip to that final showdown was always built on a certain amount of remorse that made you understand that they were only turning to violence because there was no other way. In contrast, Thaddeus' return to warmongering always felt like a foregone conclusion, and that little bit of poorly paid lipservice really served to distance the film from it's inspirations.
Of course, if you haven't seen a lot of old Hong Kong kung fu movies you might not care about how The Man With the Iron Fists franchise lives up to the standards set by it's Asian ancestors. However, I've been going to the Hollywood theater's monthly kung fu Cinema feature for a few years now, and I can tell you that doing so has really changed how I feel about martial arts movies. Once you've spent a small amount of time studying the classics of the genre you become less and less willing to accept cheap American knock-offs.
This month's kung fu cinema entry was A Fistful of Talons, and it succeeded everywhere that the Man With the Iron Fists Two failed. For starters, you wouldn't really accuse A Fistful of Talons of being generic. Sure, the movie's overall plot wasn't breaking any new ground – it's about an energetic young man who teams up with a noble fighter to try to stop an ex-general who is trying to overthrow the current government; that might sound unique, but you have to keep in mind that a lot of kung fu films from this era were about young men who have to team up with a wise old mentor to learn a secret style so they can stop an unstoppable villain. However, these films can still feel special even if they have disposable plots as long as they buttress those plots with inventive details and unbelievable fight scenes. A Fistful of Talons delivers on both counts.
My favorite scene is probably the one where our young hero uses his king fu skills to wash a dirty horse. He does a Karate Kid-ish wax-on/wax-off on the horse's flanks, flipping over it's back when he wanted to wash the other side, and just generally showing off. (He even stops to wash it's wiener, which was... an interesting choice for this film to make.) It was the sort of breezy, funny scene that really distances this sort of kung fu classic from a modern knock off, because it was obviously meant to entertain the audience, not intimidate them - a distinction that really means a lot to me.
Fistful of Talon's final fight scene was also great. At first the mentor fights the ex-general in hand to hand combat and the villain comes out on top, in large part because he's cheating - he's secretly wearing spiked leather leg warmers under his pants. Then our young hero tries to fight the ex-general and that goes even worse for the good guys. The hero's girlfriend joins in the fight and her presence fails to tip the scales... until the mentor suddenly reminds the girlfriend that she can summon her pet eagles into the fray. Her avian minions make a huge difference, because they immediately dive directly at the ex-general's eyes and pluck them out. The eye gouging scene was somewhere in between the legitimate “I would NOT want a live angry bird being that close to my face” scariness of the Birds and the “that guy is trying to make a puppet look like it's alive and attacking” goofiness that you might expect from an Ed Wood movie, depending on the shot and whether or not it featured a real bird in it or a fake one.
(Just so that I don't leave you on a cliffhanger: eventually the ex-general rips a bird in two with his bare hands, stopping that onslaught, but he is shortly dispatched by the heroes, who have the advantage of still having eyes in their heads. The film wraps up with a succinct "THE END" before the ex-general is even fully dead.)
My main takeaway from watching these movies back to back has less to do with the quality of their martial arts (although Talons is definitely better on that front), or their direction (again: points to Talons, which properly showcases it's fights in long duration wide shots that allow you to see everything.) No, the real difference is in their tone. Martial arts demonstrations are lively and fun, so why would you make a kung fu film that was relentlessly dour? It's hard to take a story about a low-tech cyborg fighting a civil war in China too seriously, and yet the Man with the Iron Fists Two acts as if every new plot twist is a matter of life and death. In contrast, A Fistful of Talons sets its story in a specific period of Chinese history in the midst of a real conflict – and then treats everything as a lark, layering silly affectations on top of a very real situation. If you give me a choice between a man with iron fists and a dude wearing spiked leather leg warmers, I'm going to choose the latter every time because the less ominous option almost always sounds more entertaining to me. (And don't even bother to ask me if I would choose a man with iron fists or a flock of vicious rubber birds - that competition is even less close.)
Man With the Iron Fists Two: The Cat
A Fistfull of Talons: Me