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IRON MONKEY

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Donnie Yen, Yu Rong Guang, Jean Wang, Tsang Sze-Man
Director: Yuen Wo Ping
Audio: English or Chinese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Dimension (Disney)
Features: Interviews with Donnie Yen and Quentin Tarantino, score medley
Length: 85 minutes
Release Date: March 26, 2002

"Your sect killed my father!"

"Let's make it a family tradition."

Film ***

Folks who have watched any of the Matrix films have probably marveled at those great action sequences.  Who knew Keanu Reeves could look so cool pretending to be Bruce Lee?  Well, the man ultimately responsible whipping Keanu into kung fu-ing shape was the master stunts choreographer Yuen Wo Ping.  Yuen has been around a while, albeit mostly in the Hong Kong movie industry.  But while there, he worked with the best in the martial arts genre - Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen to name a few.  One of his final films, before assuming solely choreography duties, was Iron Monkey (1993), and it packs a knock-out punch.

Is the film good?  Oh, you betcha!  Sophisticated people who are looking for Oscar-worthy performances may roll their eyes at this mindless action flick, but the martial arts film genre has never been about thought-provoking drama and emotional speeches.  It's all about kicking the other guy into the middle of next week!  It's about the good guys with their hiiie-ya kicks and the bad guys with their evils laughs and twisty Fu Manchu beards.  The plots are all variations on the same theme - the hero gets knocked around silly early on but does some training and comes back to stomp the bad guys into an unrecognizable ooze.  And Iron Monkey, produced by Hong Kong wunderkind Tsui Hark and directed by Yuen Wo Ping, has arguably some of the finest martial arts action sequences ever devised for film.  Yuen Wo Ping is at the top of his game here, and with Donnie Yen leading the way, this film is a thrill ride from start to finish.

The film takes place in China in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  A mysterious folk hero, Iron Monkey, has been terrorizing the local corrupt government officials.  He dodges all the government's diabolical traps and generally makes the government lackeys look like bumbling idiots.  Crusader by night, by day he is just the local good-hearted pharmacist, Dr. Yang (Yu Rong Guang).  Ha ha, a pharmacist!  That's a new one.

Anyways, this vigilante also has a female sidekick - Miss Orchid (the seriously fine Jean Wang).  She has some moves on her too, you better believe!  Together, they do the honorable Robin Hood act - rob the rich, feed the poor.

Well, as it turns out, the governor has a new plot to capture Iron Monkey.  All strangers and monkey-looking beggars are to be gathered up.  Inadvertently entangled in this mess are two innocent travelers, Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) and his young son, Fei Hung.  When Wong Kei-Ying reveals some of his awesome martial arts skills, the governor quickly revises his plans - he threatens to kill Fei Hung unless Kei-Ying agrees to find and defeat the Iron Monkey.

Is there any point in babbling further about the plot?  Suffice it to say that Wong Kei-Ying does find and initially fights Iron Monkey.  But, when he realizes who the bad guys really are, he joins up with Iron Monkey instead to defeat the corrupt government officials.  The governor may ultimately be a push-over, but soon an evil magistrate replaces him and turns out to be a very deadly master monk indeed!  This magistrate's arrival starts the countdown towards a fiery climactic fight with a majestic ooooh-factor.

Folks, this is popcorn-martial arts at its finest!  The action is all real with no CGI effects!  A mixture of traditional martial arts and amazing wire-fu, the stunts in Iron Monkey have to be seen to be believed.  These actors are truly skilled martial artists, and the results are all on-screen for everyone to see.  From bare-handed fisticuffs to melee combats involving swords, polearms, chains, and even burning logs, it's all here!

So, if you're in the mood for some light-hearted but exciting action, why not give Iron Monkey a try?  There are few Hong Kong martial arts flicks better than this Yuen Wo Ping film, and with the fine polish that Miramax has given to it, Iron Monkey has never looked better!

Bonus Trivia - Wong Fei Hung of course grew up to become a legendary (but real-life) folk hero himself.  Jackie Chan portrayed him in two Drunken Master films and Jet Li handled the duties in the awesome Once Upon a Time in China series.  For Iron Monkey, Wong Fei Hung is portrayed by the very talented Tsang Sze-Man, who is actually....a girl!

Video *** 1/2

The picture looks good.  Hong Kong films are notorious for being very poorly preserved, but either Dimension found an extremely well-preserved print or did an excellent job retouching one up to Hollywood standards.  Presented in anamorphic widescreen, Iron Monkey will please all fans of the film with its gorgeous and solid transfer.

My only criticism, though, is one that applies pretty much to every single Hong Kong martial arts flick that Dimension brings to these shores - the film is truncated.  Oh, Dimension has added some nifty opening and end title sequences, but some scenes in the film are slightly shortened and a few short sequences are missing altogether.  Most of these had a colloquial flavor that would probably seem alien or weird to American audiences.  If Dimension absolutely had to re-edit the film for content, at least they did a decent job, for I doubt the majority of the viewing public will notice that anything is amiss.

Even so, it would be nice if a Hong Kong film were to actually see America distribution without being routinely re-edited.  Honestly, how many martial arts fans are seriously concerned about content?  Just let us see everything!

Audio ***

The original Chinese soundtrack has been retained for this DVD.  Woo-hoo!  It's the only way to go, and it sounds great in its new, thunderous 5.1 re-mix.

Oh, sure, you could listen to the English dub instead.  But that is so gurly.  C'mon, this is a martial arts flick!  Show some backbone already and just use the Chinese audio.  And don't cry about the subtitles, either.  There's no crying in martial arts.

Features **

The DVD has two quick interviews.  I am not sure how many people would consider an interview with Quentin Tarantino a "feature," but here it is nonetheless in bold and cheery colors.  Tarantino is his usual, relentlessly motor-mouth self, and he explains (in so many words) how he was able to convince Disney to finally distribute Iron Monkey in America.  Love him or hate him, he still has great taste in Hong Kong action flicks!  The second interview, with Donnie Yen, is less spastic but just as enjoyable for any fans of this exceptional martial artist.  Yen describes some of the styles involved in the choreography for Iron Monkey, too!

There are also five trailers on the DVD for Jet Li films (The Legend, The Legend 2, Twin Warriors) and Jackie Chan films (The Legend of the Drunken Master, Twin Dragons).

Lastly, there is a short score medley which is somewhat pointless, so don't bother with it.

Summary:

Sometimes you just have to say "aww heck with it."  Forget about that weepy, serious-illness-of-the-week melodrama you were about to rent.  Grab Iron Monkey instead, kick back, relax, and watch these martial artists fly into some serious butt-kickin' action.  It's mindless, it's loopy, and it's absolutely fantastic fun!