Iron Monkey (2001)
Release Date: October 12th, 2001 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Yuen Woo-Ping Actors: Rongguang Yu, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, James Wong, Sze-Man Tsang, Shun-Yee Yuen
strong man sheds blood before he sheds tears.” “Iron Monkey” is a twist of Robin Hood, Zorro, the three best-known musketeers, and every other hero who fights corrupt dignitaries while protecting the weak and poor. Mixing in pure fantasy with a mild love story and intense martial arts action results in a thrilling and humorous adventure, brimming with colorful characters and mind-blowing stunts. Comparable but predating “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” it is one of the most entertaining of all Hong Kong imports.
In the 19th-century Chinese village of Chekiang, a legendary warrior dubbed the Iron Monkey wages a one-man war against the oppressive officials who starve and mistreat their people. Traveling physician Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) arrives from Foshan with his young son Wong Fei-Hung (Sze-Man Tsang), only to be immediate victims of the churlish Governor Cheng (James Wong), who wrongfully imprisons anyone who might be the dreaded Iron Monkey. When Cheng learns of Kei-Ying’s stunning martial arts talents, he throws his son into the dungeon and demands that the grief-stricken father kill the Iron Monkey in return for his child’s freedom.
But Kei-Ying’s skills aren’t quite good enough. After failing to stop the cryptic Iron Monkey’s attacks, Kei-Ying stays with the generous Miss Orchid (Jean Wang) and Dr. Yang (Rongguang Yu), who run a respected pharmacy. When the cloaked avenger makes a fool of the sniveling governor one too many times, Royal Minister Hin (Yee Kwan Yan), the traitorous henchman for the Emperor, is additionally dispatched to Chekiang to put a stop to the insubordination.
Like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” many of the fight sequences are designed for artistic beauty, with assailants floating through the air on invisible wires and heroes soaring from rooftops more majestically than birds. This is always one of the hardest concepts for American audiences to accept, considering the most popular form of cinematic combat is violent, grounded, and weapon-based combat that doesn’t take so much away from realism. “Iron Monkey” versatilely includes many of these scenes as well, showcasing action director Yuen Woo-Ping’s wildly imaginative choreography. Most of the fight scenes actually tie into the story, although several are introduced just for the sake of action, which is entirely expected.
Another enticing factor is the unique villains, marked with scars and massive facial discoloration – most notably in the Rebel Shaolin monks that serve the governor. And then there’s the Royal Minister (styled something like “Flash Gordon’s” Ming), who is even more flamboyantly evil than the comedically rotten Cheng. His over-the-top techniques include destructive flying sleeves and the poisoned Buddha’s Palm. He’s so tough that it takes both the Iron Monkey and Kei-Ying to make an even match.
As a perfect complement to the adventure, a generous portion of comedy is blended in – sometimes just with witty bits of dialogue and frequently with physical slapstick. In a particularly humorous scene, even Kei-Ying’s cooking is ninja-like. Numerous characters, such as Chief Fox (Shun-Yee Yuen), a counterpart to Zorro’s Sergeant Garcia, are present purely for comic relief. Even the locations for the duels are wittily inspired; who would have thought that the climax could be fought on hundreds of poles protruding from the ground as they are rapidly consumed by flames? It’s a truly unbelievable balancing act, serving both as a fiery finale and a significant filmic achievement for a well-rounded kung-fu epic.
– Mike Massie