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Kung fu music video

There’s a line in The Man with the Iron Fists that becomes self-fulfilling prophecy for this film: “A dog that lives in a palace is still a dog.”

So it goes for this martial arts bloodfest from hip hop star RZA, whose directorial debut goes a long way in demonstrating that a bad movie with big names is still a bad movie. Just prettier.

Under the banner of “Quentin Tarantino Presents” (though Tarantino takes no producing or writing credit) and starring Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, Fists aims to be another homage to the kung fu films of yore. And while the air is filled with sound effects behind every punch, Fists plays more like a 95-minute music video, underscored by drum machines and writhing models.

Set in 19th-century China (though hip sunglasses, American slang and frosted tips abound), Fists centres on a mysterious blacksmith (RZA) caught between warring factions in Jungle Village.

As tensions between the clans mount, we meet the irascible emissary Jack Knife (Crowe), a big sponsor of the local brothel, and Madam Blossom (Liu), who runs it. They share some sexual dialogue, but no chemistry.

The film has beautifully choreographed moments, and the action sequences won’t disappoint any fans of slow-motion fist-fights and arteries that gush like fire hydrants.

Alas, Fists has a tin ear. Written by RZA and Hostel director Eli Roth, the film doesn’t have enough tension to be taken seriously, or enough laughs to be taken lightly.

One of the primary villains, for instance, is Brass Body (mixed martial arts star Dave Bautista), a man with cannons for arms and a tree stump for a neck. But Fists can’t help but take every character over the top – thus, Brass Body has learned to transform his skin into a sheet of metal. The blacksmith, too, works some metallurgic magic with brass knuckles.

Crowe and Liu are fine, though tasked with chewing any scenery within reach. RZA has the emotional range of a jujitsu mat.

Say this for Fists: It’s slick and hip, down to the soundtrack. The closing title sequence, set to RZA and The Black Keys’ Baddest Man Alive, is worth sitting through.

But it seems to take a long time getting there. For all the high-calibre voices chiming in on Fists, they strike a single note: Woof.

— Scott Bowles, USA TODAY

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