By my own admission, I’m unstudied in Hong Kong action movies, my experience being limited to a few Jackie Chan (“Supercop”) and John Woo (“The Killer”) productions, plus Ang Lee’s recent international hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I’ve also never seen a Bruce Lee movie in its entirety, only a few sparse highlights.
Still, despite my ignorance of Hong Kong, I’m convinced that “Iron Monkey” could be the best, most entertaining martial arts film I may ever see.
Shot in 1993 and re-released for U.S. audiences, “Iron Monkey” stars Rongguang Yu as Dr. Yang, a 19th century Chinese Zorro dispensing herbal medicines by day, and masked justice by night to foil a corrupt governor. Aided by his assistant, Miss Orchid (played by the gorgeous Jean Wang; a Robin to Dr. Yang’s Batman), our outlaw hero steals from the rich to give to the poor, leaving the governor’s police led by the bumbling Master Fox (Shun-Yee Yuen) chasing their tails.
Later, a travelling Shoulin Master, Wong (played by the amazing Donnie Yen), and his son (Sze-Man Tsang) Fei-Hung (a Chinese hero popularized in Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master series) arrive in Dr. Yang’s provincial hometown, only to be snared in a dragnet meant to catch Iron Monkey, leaving Fei-Hung jailed and Wong forced into trapping the bandit to win his son’s freedom.
Unlike the romantic Crouching Tiger, (also choreographed by Woo-Ping), “Iron Monkey” is a wheel of amazing showdowns: Fei-Hung battling thugs with an umbrella; Miss Orchid spinning atop a cart, delivering kicks; Iron Monkey and Wong sparring on a rooftop — all leading to a fiery duel between our heroes and the evil Master Hing (Yee Kwan Yan), who of course, once killed Yang’s father. Time for revenge!
In “Iron Monkey,” Woo-Ping makes any fights he arranged in The Matrix look tame by comparison. Albeit then, he was charged with the task of drilling actors with few martial arts skills into decent kung-fu amateurs within six months. But with “Iron Monkey,” Woo-Ping’s cast obviously shares decades of prior experience, and the physical payoff is dazzling in a way that makes us overlook the film’s wire work.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll be less impressed with “Iron Monkey” after I see it a second time. But based on the genuine enthusiasm I felt for the movie after the first viewing, somehow I doubt it.