Iron Monkey

Nearly a decade before western audiences experiences Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there was Iron Monkey. For years, Hong Kong martial arts cinema used the dazzling array of wires and leaps used to great effect in the aforementioned movie and The Matrix. Iron Monkey was the epitomy of these movies, combining wonderful, graceful martial arts with cornball dialogue and an epic scale. The main difference between this and Crouching Tiger is that Iron Monkey is missing the poetic storytelling. This is an action movie, and aspires to be nothing else. For its rerelease, Miramax cleaned up the print, added a new score, added the new "Quentin Tarantino presents) credit, and best of all (and thanks to the success of Crouching Tiger) stayed away from dubbing the film into English.

The Iron Monkey is a Robin Hood like figure who, in actuality, is Dr. Yang (Yu Rong Guang, Shanghai Noon, The Warriors), a mild-mannered (aren't they all?) compassionate healer. The Iron Monkey exists to combat official corruption, mainly stealing from Governor Cheng (Chinese Ghost Story, Screwball '94) and giving to the poor. Master Fox (Yuen Shun Yee, Fist of Legend, Forbidden City Cop) is in charge of the local police, but only makes half-hearted efforts at capturing Iron Monkey. Into this fray steps Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen, Highlander: Endgame, City of Darkness) and his son Wong Fei-Hung (Tsang Sze-Man), two towering legendary figures in Chinese history. They are passing through on their way home and find themselves caught in Cheng's pathetic scheme to trap anybody with martial arts skills, thinking he will catch Iron Monkey. Iron Monkey and Kei-Ying fight, leading Cheng to imprison Fei-Hung. The only way Kei-Ying will get Fei-Hung back is to capture Iron Monkey. Things become complicated when Yang and Kei-Ying meet and befriend each other.

One surprising element of Iron Monkey is that the story holds up relatively well, especially considering the complications. With story credit going to Tsui Hark (Time and Tide, Old Master Q), Lau Tai-Muk (The Master), Tan Cheung (Dragon Inn), and Tang Pik-Yin (East is Red, Once Upon a Time in China), there are enough people to give backstories to and develop some aspects of all the characters, and there are many. Yang's assistant Miss Orchid (Jean Wang, Dark War, Once Upon a Time in China VI) is also a master martial artist and recovering from events in her life. Later, a crooked government official (Yan Yee Kwan, Ghost Foot 7, Indian Fetish Cult) with a history with Kei-Ying arrives in town. All of the various stories tie in with each other, and legendary director and choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (Tai Chi 2, The Red Wolf) is able to achieve a balance between overtelling and undertelling each one.

However, the main reason to see this film is the martial arts. Although years old, the fight choreography is still remarkable. With so many characters, there are many opportunities for fights, with both different opponents and many weapons. Unseen wires help the actors fly through the air and do all sorts of impossible twists and turns. The most memorable sequence involves three people, balancing precariously on wooden poles while fires rage underneath. Familiar Asian film conventions like sped up fighting and exaggerated stunts do pepper Iron Monkey, but not to the extent that some other directors use them. They are as forgivable as the overly dramatic acting and the lame jokes, some of which actually have the ability to elicit some chuckles. All in all, it's amazing that it took so long for Iron Monkey to make the trek here to America, but now that it's here, enjoy it for what it is.

Haro Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 29 minutes, Cantonese with English subtitles, Rated PG-13 for martial arts action/violence and brief sexuality.

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