Miramax execs would like you to think of Iron Monkey as this year’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It might be more accurate, though, to call it this year’s The Legend of Drunken Master.
Like Drunken Master — the Jackie Chan cult favorite
that played on American screens this time last year — Iron
Monkey is an
The two chop-socky flicks even have characters in common,
namely, 19th-century Chinese folk-hero Wong
Iron Monkey does have a few notable points of contact
with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: high-flying heroes
and heroines with mystic power to transcend physical limitations
(Jackie Chan might seem to defy gravity a few times in Drunken
Master, but he avoids the all-out fantasy wirework of
Crouching Tiger and Iron Monkey); a character who
wears a mask to protect a double-identity; a desperate bid to
save a poisoned hero; and above all Yuen
But the differences are more telling. Crouching Tiger was a film with martial arts; Iron Monkey is a martial-arts film, starring real martial artists. Crouching Tiger starred real actors. (Of Crouching Tiger’s four principals, only one, Michelle Yeoh, has a martial-arts background; the others got by on choreography, crash training, and moviemaking tricks, like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix and Liam Neeson and Ewan MacGregor in The Phantom Menace.)
Whether you are more likely to go for Crouching Tiger or Iron Monkey, then, will depend in large part upon who you are. Some kung-fu fans found Crouching Tiger tedious and unremarkable; they should eat up Iron Monkey’s robust displays of martial-arts prowess with gusto. On the other hand, many film aficionados who appreciated Crouching Tiger’s luxurious artistry may find Iron Monkey juvenile and pedestrian. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed both films, on different levels — although Iron Monkey isn’t the singular masterpiece, even on its own level, that Crouching Tiger is.
But it’s still a great kung-fu flick, with a better-than-average story, spectacular set pieces, and a hugely imaginative climactic fight sequence. The plot involves a masked Zorro-type hero known as "Iron Monkey" (Rongguang Yu), who hides behind a facade of Don Diego–like respectability when he’s not out in costume harassing and raiding the offices of a dishonest governor (James Wong) and giving the proceeds to the poor.
Local security forces are hopelessly outmatched by this mystical Shaolin warrior, who can bound over rooftops as soaringly as his Mount-Wudan counterparts in Crouching Tiger. (Mount Wudan and Shaolin represent two great martial-arts schools celebrated in Chinese Wuxia fiction. In the world of Wuxia fiction, the Wudan school is associated with inner strength, while the Shaolin style represents outer strength. It’s a good metaphor for these two movies, one contemplative, the other fast and furious.)
One day a stranger comes to town who can stand toe-to-toe with
Iron Monkey: renowned master Wong
Wong pretty quickly figures out, though, that he’s on the wrong side of this conflict; and it’s inevitable that Wong and Iron Monkey will eventually join forces — and that a formidable new foe will materialize who’s a match for both of them at once.
Director Yuen Wo-Ping handles the proceedings with a light
touch, even when young
The fighting is more artificial than anything in either
Crouching Tiger or Drunken Master (there’s
apparently no upper limit to the number of kicks Iron Monkey can
deliver suspended in midair or even perched atop an opponent’s
head), but it’s no less astounding or entertaining for all that.
The joy of watching this kind of stuff lies in the choreographical invention and creativity, the speed and dexterity of the combatants, the picture of larger-than-life heroes capable of meting out justice in unjust situations, and the depiction of good and evil struggling in a moral universe in which good always wins in the end. It’s an oversimplified but ultimately valid picture of a truth that can seem remote and abstract in our increasingly uncertain world.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.