Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Iron Monkey

Like any other left-field hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will inevitably yield a diminishing return of imitators and also-rans until the well runs dry and another trend comes along. But for now, Dragon's crossover success has resulted in the belated liberation of 1993's Iron Monkey, a delightful and exhilarating Hong Kong classic directed by famed Crouching Tiger fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (Wing Chun). Two years ago, releasing a martial-arts movie with subtitles would have been unthinkable, especially for Miramax, which has a notorious reputation for tampering with imports. But to the distributor's credit, Iron Monkey has been subtitled and the changes made to its original form are mostly negligible, save for a generic and occasionally intrusive score. Based on Chinese folk legend, the story revitalizes the Robin Hood archetype in the Douglas Fairbanks mold, while showcasing elegant swordplay, sleight-of-hand humor, and "wire-fu" action sequences as expertly choreographed as a Golden Age song-and-dance number. Co-written and produced by the great Tsui Hark, Iron Monkey doesn't quite rival the sumptuous period trappings of Hark's Once Upon A Time In China, but it's wittier and fleeter of foot, a model of sleek Hong Kong craftsmanship. In a mid-19th-century Chinese province lorded over by corrupt officials and greedy merchants, the only force of justice for the peasants is the titular hero, a black-masked Shaolin master who plunders rich men's coffers and food warehouses to give the poor their share. Played by Rongguang Yu, he's a kindhearted doctor by day, running a clinic with assistant Jean Wang, who has considerable ass-kicking skills of her own. Casting a wide net for anyone in town who could pass for the Iron Monkey—including a guy who looks like a monkey when he sneezes—the sinister governor (James Wong) forces Donnie Yen, a mysterious stranger with considerable fighting abilities, to find the bandit or risk losing his son. Though he handles the requisite plot mechanics with more feeling and suspense than necessary, Yuen doesn't allow much slack between kung-fu sequences, and he keeps topping himself as he goes along, culminating in a stunning battle on poles over a raging fire. From a whimsical scene in which Yu and Wang flutter around a room after loose papers to the deft use of an umbrella as weapon and shield, Iron Monkey seems just as rooted in musicals like The Red Shoes and Singin' In The Rain as it is in the martial-arts genre. And, like the best musicals, Iron Monkey emphasizes beauty and fun, with combatants taking so much pleasure in their moves that they yell out names for them. ("Fisherman's Paddle!" "Flying Sleeves!" "Rod That Sweeps Away Injustice!") In Yuen's incomparable hands, their joy is infectious.