Iron Monkey (2001)

Directed by Yuen Wo-Ping. Donnie Yen, Yu Rong-guang, Jean Wang, James Wong, Tsang Sze-man, Yuen Shun-yee. Miramax (U.S., 2001).

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +0
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-III

Content advisory: Stylized martial-arts violence; brief comic sensuality; some crass language; fleeting sexual menace (no nudity).

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Iron Monkey (DVD, Blu-ray)

By Steven D. Greydanus

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 early-90s Hong-Kong kung-fu genre standout. In contrast to Crouching Tiger’s art-house refinement, its epic grandeur, thematic resonance, emotional undercurrents, lush cinematography and score, and balletic combat sequences, Iron Monkey offers the same kind of extended, exaggerated virtuoso martial-arts battles, campy overacting, and low humor and comic relief found in Drunken Master.

The two chop-socky flicks even have characters in common, namely, 19th-century Chinese folk-hero Wong Fei-Hung (Chan’s character in the Drunken Master movies) and his father Wong Kei-ying — though in Iron Monkey Fei-Hung is still a young boy (played, though you’d never guess it, by a young girl, Tsang Sze-man, who isn’t kidding when she utters her character’s line, "Hey, my kung fu is pretty good!"). (Incidentally, Wong Fei-Hung was also played by Jet Li in the Once Upon a Time in China films.)

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 Wo-Ping, who choreographed the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger and directed Iron Monkey. (It was doubtless these similarities that led Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein and "presenter" Quentin Tarantino to trot out this particular flick for redistribution.)

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 Kei-ying (Donnie Yen), father of young Wong Fei-Hung, who will grow up to be a great hero. The corrupt governor shrewdly maneuvers the elder Wong into taking on the masked bandit-hero, even holding his son hostage until Iron Monkey has been arrested.

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 Fei-Hung becomes seriously ill, or later when the boy has to save a drugged nurse (Jean Wang) from four lascivious renegade Shaolin monks.

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. Tsang Sze-man as young Fei-Hung has some great fight scenes (and an even better stunt in which she hangs from an umbrella and tosses a bit of pottery with her feet), and Jean Wang as a nurse who is also a Shaolin fighter is anything but a damsel in distress.

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.

Tags: Action, Adventure, Foreign Language, Martial Arts

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