Hit & Miss: Wu-Tang on the Screen

Some may say that, when it comes to film and TV, the Wu-Tang oeuvre ain't nothing to fuck with. The intrepid Andrew Hickey jumps in to sort the good from the bad.

HIT // HOW HIGH (2001): The most naturally charismatic member of the crew, who can go from menacing to comedic so easily, Meth has had the juiciest roles to sink his teeth into. Somehow we can’t imagine Masta Killa playing the flamboyant Shameek in Belly. Perpetually stoned, he has effortlessly glided through performances in everything from The Wire to Garden State with complete authenticity. He is also responsible for the ultimate weed flick of his generation, How High. With Redman as the Chong to his Cheech, they set about turning an Ivy League university into a den of depravity™. While it resulted in a short-lived buffoonish sitcom, the flick inspired a generation to blend the ashes of a dead friend with cannabis to create super weed. Or at least I hope it did.
MISS // RISE OF A FALLEN SOLDIER (2004): Loyal Wu-Tang fans can appreciate the unique skills that every member brings to the (overcrowded) table. While he has generally remained under the radar, U-God has discreetly dropped some slick lines on the occasional Wu-Tang track. Even the most diehard fan however would be hard-pressed to defend this low budget vanity project, disguised as another Wu-Tang documentary. You can’t accuse Rise of a Fallen Soldier of being glitzy, as you get to witness Raekwon driving around with one of his weed carriers and see footage shot in black and white for no apparent reason. U-Godzilla also takes the time to use the flick as a personal platform to flame his then-current beefs with RZA and Ol Dirty Bastard.
HIT // NINTENDO SUPER GAME BOY COMMERCIAL (1993): Not enough can be said about this banned TV commercial, as it is one of the best hidden nuggets of hip hop history. In an obvious attempt to boost their street cred, Nintendo teamed up with the Wu in one of their first crossover efforts. The commercial, filmed in the industrial setting of Williamsburg, NY, features members of the legendary COD graffiti crew painting Nintendo characters on public property, while RZA and Ol Dirty Bastard talk about how ill this hybrid Game Boy/Super Nintendo system was over a Prince Paul beat. In a great twist, our boys got their own game eventually, Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style otherwise known as Taste the Pain (no joke).
MISS // BLACK & WHITE (1999): Reality bites, or at least it does when it’s presented like a preachy student film. The most telling sign of this flick, about white college kids seduced by hip hop, is that director James Toback is a veteran indie filmmaker and yet can’t string together a cohesive narrative. Toback deserves some credit for at least bringing together the largest ensemble of Wu-Tang members in one place, outside of their group albums, including Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and even the illusive Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa. Maybe Toback is the missing ingredient for keeping the Wu together. The film also features Robert Downey Jr. as a gay photographer who hits on Mike Tyson (yep).
HIT // CHAPPELLE'S SHOW (2003): Whether it says something about Wu-Tang or Dave Chappelle, the Wu-Tang Financial sketch, which only runs for a minute-and-a-half, has become one of the most famous things they’ve ever been involved with. Along with “I’m Rick James Bitch”, the often quoted line from this sketch had everyone wanting to diversify their bonds. The earnestness with which everyone performed in the sketch resulted in a classic and makes one question who ever casts votes for the Emmys. It encapsulates the greatness of the Wu in one bite sized form. “This ain’t Trading Places ni**a, this is real fuckin’ life,” GZA said, and we agree.
MISS // SOUL PLANE (2004): From the moment Wu-Tang broke out Meth was instantly pegged as the breakout star. He had the charisma, raspy voice and aura of a functioning pothead who was more lovable than intimidating. Starting off slow, he eventually started to take seemingly any role offered to him. On paper, and in a hazed state, Soul Plane probably sounded great. He got to hang out with Snoop Dogg, Kevin Hart, Lil Jon... and Tom Arnold on a fake plane. Oh wait, that sounds pretty horrible. The movie set hip hop back to before it even existed and Meth went on to outdo himself a few years later with his appearance in Meet the Spartans.
HIT // GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI (1999): While technically it’s directed by the king of quirk Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog can essentially be viewed as the first Wu-Tang movie. Just as they redefined the rap game with their inventive slang and playful use of violent threats, the film puts a philosophical spin on the age old gangster movie formula. It stars Forest Whitaker as a reformed mob hitman who has converted to the ways of the samurai, so basically a one man Wu-Tang Clan. It was RZA’s first time as a film composer and resulted in one of the finest soundtracks in hip hop history. He also had the honour of playing the prestigious role of ‘Samurai in Camouflage’.
MISS // COALITION (2004): While you could at times find a gem, the straight-to-DVD market has proven to be a wasteland of poor editing and storytelling and even poorer acting. If you missed this little treat you wouldn’t be alone. Raekwon, one of the less prolific Wu members on the screen, carried over his mob persona as a member of the minority union group Survival of the Black Man (SBM), who run roughshod over the construction business in New York. In one scene, with Wu-Tang co-founder Power, Rae gets to exchange some classic pseudo-philosophy. It’s described on IMDB as a modern take on Marlon Brando’s On the Waterfront. We’d describe it more as ‘The Bible in the Hood’.
HIT // GRAMMY AWARDS (1998): It was a typical night of music industry backpatting, as sensitive singer-songwriter Sean Colvin was accepting her award for Song of the Year, which probably consisted of dolphin noises or something. As her name was announced you could see a braided figure approach presenter Erykah Badu and once he grabbed the mic it was apparent that it was Ol Dirty Bastard. Fresh from the scene of a traffic accident, he went on a Kanye level rant, except better, about how the shiny suited Puff Daddy robbed the Wu of their Best Rap Album trophy. Going out in a blaze of glory, a hallmark of his career, Dirty finished his business and calmly strolled off stage as guys in suits scrambled to regain control. Classic Wu.
MISS // METHOD MAN PRESENTS THE STRIP GAME (2005): The serial offender of Wu-Tang Clan, not counting his last few solo albums, Method Man took it upon himself to become the hip hop Ken Burns with this seedy little documentary about strip clubs in the US. While I was hoping for a complete history of the strip industry complete with voiceovers from actors, instead we get Meth escorting us around the type of clubs even rats would be offended to call home. It also includes enlightening interviews with said strippers and some of his music buddies, including Blink-182’s Travis Barker, who tells us that a strip club could be a good spot for a first date with a girl.

Who doesn’t love Wu-Tang Clan? Well I could take or leave Cappadonna, depending on what verse I’m listening to, but not liking the Wu should be illegal. Being a Wu-Tang fan is like being Amish: it’s a way of life. Their ideology and personalities can’t be contained purely within the confines of a song. RZA, as the chess master he is, learned this early and harnessed it into dollars, turning the Wu-Tang symbol into the equivalent of the Coke logo.

Before Diddy or Master P, Wu-Tang formed the original hip hop conglomerate. The fact that they pulled this off by being raw and unfiltered shows their undeniable power. For all the good they have done the world, they have been guilty of a few sins. They gave wogs/guidos a line of gaudy tracksuits with Wu Wear and birthed a legion of inbred offspring, like Royal Fam and Wu-Syndicate.

Being that the original Wu-Tang mythology came from old kung-fu flicks and given the cinematic quality of their music, it was only natural that the Wu boys crossed over into the world of film and TV. Much like their back catalogue of solo and offshoot albums, their on-screen legacy is a mixed bag. Unless a skilled director is involved, you get the sense that most of their acting work involves showing up and being told to do just do their thing.

The Wu-Tang combination of Eastern philosophy and street knowledge has seen much of their film work linger into pretentious pseudo-intellectual territory, like being hit over the head with a giant fortune cookie. Things have come full circle now that RZA has realised his dream of being a martial arts film director with Man With The Iron Fists. If he can’t pull the strings to finally get Ghostface into an Iron Man movie, then I give up on life. Now seems like the perfect time to trawl through the Shaolin archives and look at the filmic artistry of Wu-Tang Clan, from Ghost Dog to Soul Plane. Miss anything? Let us know!