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Iron Monkey
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Woo-ping Yuen (director)
Genre:   Martial Arts / Adventure / Fantasy / Comedy
Released:   October 12, 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

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 characters).

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… well, see the Monkey at least.


RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers likes to say the word "monkey". But who doesn't?


 
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