If you had told me, three years ago, that a martial arts oddity like Iron
Monkey would get a wide release in America, I would not have believed it.
In fact, even after the successes of Jackie Chan, The Matrix, Jet Li,
and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I'm still amazed.
The second time I went to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of
my companions was a 15-year-old who had seen it once already. He told me that
he actually didn't like Crouching Tiger very much. I asked him why. He
said that it was too unrealistic. That it was an insult to martial arts movies.
Though I could understand his perspective, I think my response was a politer
version of "Kid, you obviously haven't seen very many martial arts movies."
Of course, there are the hard-ass Bruce Lee street fightin' martial arts flicks.
And if those are the only kind you like, fine. Each to their own. But those
aren't the only real martial arts movies. There is another kind of Hong Kong
action movie that's been around for a while. That's the kind with people flying
through the air all over the place, people who can shatter concrete with their
punches, people with magic powers and wacky weapons (like that guy in The Heroic
Trio who wields a something on the end of a chain - kind of like a birdcage
with no bottom. He throws it out, it lands on people's heads, and then it cuts
their heads off). In short, movies that make the stuff in Crouching Tiger
seem like a gritty documentary. Movies like Iron Monkey.
Iron Monkey was made almost a decade ago. So why is it being released
now? One reason: Woo-ping Yuen. He's the director and marital arts choreographer
of Iron Monkey. Oh yeah, and he's also the guy who did the fight choreography
for Black Mask, The Matrix, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
So, Iron Monkey is a blatant cash-in by Miramax.
Oh, but what a glorious cash-in. Miramax can do all the shameless money-grubbing
recycling of old Hong Kong films they want to, as long as it means I get to
see more stuff like Iron Monkey on the big screen.
One problem, though: Miramax hasn't exactly been honest in their marketing
of Iron Monkey. In the previews, Iron Monkey looks a hell of a
lot like Crouching Tiger. The narrator says something like "In a
town with a corrupt government, there is one man who will stand as a champion
of the people." As far as you can tell from the trailer, Iron Monkey
will have a master and his young apprentice, a battle between good and evil,
people leaping from rooftop to rooftop in a historic Chinese setting, and balletic
fighting, just like Crouching Tiger. And Iron Monkey does have
all that stuff. But what Miramax's preview doesn't show is that it also has
bumbling villains, sight gags, monkey butt humor, and fight choreography that
is both beautiful and ridiculously funny.
And the way Miramax has been positioning the film, people who are expecting
another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might leave the theater feeling
pissed. In the first few minutes of the movie, we see four Shaolin monks guarding
a governor's house. The governor's servants bring the monks some food in a basket.
One of the monks jolts the basket; four bowls fly high up into the air and then
land in each monk's outstretched hand. At this point, you'll either laugh out
loud, or think, "Why did I pay to see this piece-of-crap movie?"
To people whose only exposure to Asian martial arts movies is Bruce Lee, Jackie
Chan, and Crouching Tiger, watching Iron Monkey may be a bit disorienting,
like the first time the characters in a serious drama from India suddenly break
out into an elaborate musical number. Iron Monkey features Three Stooges
Kung Fu, graceful wirework, copious amounts of blood, a sentimental father-son
story, and plotlines that involve a preteen warrior saving a woman from the
threat of rape, and a doctor taking in a prostitute after she has a stillborn
child. I almost forgot the silly disguises and the deformed henchvillains.
A strange brew, I'll admit, but if you give into the madness and go along for
the ride, you're almost certain to enjoy yourself.
Iron Monkey is the Chinese version of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and
giving to the poor. But he's not necessarily the star of the show. There's also
his lovely assistant, Miss Orchid. The wandering monk, Wong Kei-Ying, is probably
the strongest presence in the film. He manages to make even the act of dusting
off his tunic look cool (Kei-Ying is played by Donnie Yen, who was in Highlander:
Endgame, and who will appear in Blade 2). And then there is his son,
Wong Fei-Hung. Fei-Hung is a younger version of the hero of the Once Upon
a Time in China movies. And so Iron Monkey is sort of a prequel to
Once Upon a Time in China (take that, George Lucas). Most of the actors
in Iron Monkey were involved in at least one of the Once Upon a Time
in China series (though, as far as I can tell, they didn't play the same
The action sequences in Iron Monkey are a seemingly impossible blend
of whimsy, cruelty and comedy, with just a hint of cheese. Fei-Hung fights one
battle armed mainly with an umbrella (Eat your heart out, Mr. Steed). All of
the characters have fighting moves that sound like they come straight from the
latest 2-player arcade fighting game import (Buddha's Palm, Yellow Snake Goes
in the Hole), and the main baddie possesses my new favorite marital arts power:
the Iron Sleeve.
As we saw in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Woo-ping is a phenomenal
fight choreographer with plenty of imagination to spare. Iron Monkey's
anything-goes school of martial arts (Yapapa, yapapa, Ranma fans) really
lets Woo-ping show off. And because everything is so over-the-top to start with,
we'll forgive the usually unforgivable sin: sometimes the film has been obviously
sped up to make the action seem more breakneck. This technique can be used to
good effect. In Iron Monkey, it's done well part of the time. Other times,
not so good (think the cheesy sped-up fist-fights in the early James Bond movies).
For the most part, though, the fact that the fighting is fanciful does not make
the whirling dance of it any impressive.
My recommendation: See the Monkey. Love the Monkey. Touch the
the Monkey at least.