Our review of Iron Monkey (Blu-Ray), published September 15th, 2009, is also available.
Unmask the Legend.
If Zorro fought with his fists and feet instead of a sword, or if Batman's sidekick was a beautiful nurse instead of a teenaged boy in tights, or if the Shadow knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men living in 19th-century China, any of them might have become the Iron Monkey. Lucky for us Yuen Wo-ping, the man who taught Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh to dance across treetops in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and transformed Keanu Reeves into the ultimate fighting machine in The Matrix, saw the most recent films featuring Zorro, Batman, and the Shadow and decided to make something entertaining instead.
Facts of the Case
By day, kind-hearted country doctor Yang (Yu Rong-guang) dispenses dubious remedies and folksy advice, his faithful assistant Miss Orchid (Jean Wang) hovering at his side making sure nobody accidentally takes yak loin with their scorpion tail. By night, Dr. Yang is the Iron Monkey, a half-masked Robin Hood who robs from the rich—mostly corrupt government toadies like Governor Cheng (James Wong)—and gives to the downtrodden folks of his little out-of-the-way village, leaving behind paper calling cards with a cartoon of a grinning simian on them. The Governor would love to lock up the Iron Monkey so he can focus his energies on his nine wives, but no one has been able to capture the elusive outlaw or best him in hand-to-hand combat.
Enter Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen, Blade 2), a Shaolin pilgrim passing through town with his preadolescent son Fei-hung (played by the extraordinary young female martial artist Tsang Sze-man—I didn't figure out "he" was a "she" until my third time through the disc). When the Wongs are entangled in the Governor's latest dragnet, Cheng drives a hard bargain: Wong Kei-ying can either bring in the notorious Iron Monkey, or let his son languish in the Governor's musty jail. Trying to ensnare the people's champion, though, won't gain Wong many friends in a town where the Monkey is as beloved as Mother Teresa in Calcutta. When Fei-hung falls ill with a fever and Dr. Yang is summoned to the dungeon to revive him, the good physician and his trusty nurse take the boy home, occasioning a revelatory meeting with papa Wong. Eventually the lightning-quick Iron Monkey and the equally adept Wong Kei-ying end up fighting side by side against the forces of a crooked government that's definitely not of, by or for the people.
For a few seconds, I was about to type, "It's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with all the slow parts cut out." But while that characterization might be superficially accurate, it would also be a disservice to both films. Crouching Tiger uses its stylized martial arts as a loom upon which to weave a mythic, mystical, contemplative drama that elevates the genre. Iron Monkey uses its legendary characters as a platform for 85 minutes of non-stop butt-kicking. Saying Iron Monkey is a lot like Crouching Tiger just because both films employ Yuen Wo-ping's wire-enhanced fight choreography is as absurd as saying A River Runs Through It is a lot like Se7en just because Brad Pitt's in both of 'em.
Iron Monkey, however, does resemble both Crouching Tiger and classics such as Enter The Dragon in that it doesn't make you feel like a moron for enjoying a martial arts film. I've never cared much for Jackie Chan's movies for exactly that reason—he spends so much of his screen time goofing and playing the buffoon you can almost feel your IQ receding to his character's level with every passing frame. Although there are some silly moments in Iron Monkey, primarily involving the Governor and his hapless security captain, Chief Fox, the film manages to maintain its lighthearted tone without wallowing in comic relief. All four of the lead characters—Dr. Yang, Wong Kei-ying, Wong Fei-hung, and Orchid—are heroic without being soulless caricatures, and dignified and noble without being pompous. Each comes off as likeable and surprisingly human—a phenomenal achievement given the paucity of time devoted to character development in between the fight scenes.
And what fight scenes! Energetically staged and flawlessly executed, they just keep on coming. (And in an amazing display of restraint, almost no one appears to be badly injured in combat during most of the film, with a couple of notable exceptions.) There's a good deal less wire-work than one might expect after seeing Crouching Tiger, and when it's used it's more subtle than in Ang Lee's skywalking spectacular. The effect here is just enough to enhance the already incredible skills of the performers, not to make them appear Kryptonian.
This release of Iron Monkey, its second exhibition on DVD, is nicely presented by the Miramax arm of the Disney empire. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is surprisingly clean for an eight-year-old foreign genre picture. A few flecks of dirt whiz by every now and again, and you'll see evidence of edge enhancement if you're really looking, but overall this is a remarkable restoration. Colors are vivid, blacks are crisp without any break-up at all. Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are offered in both the original Cantonese and an English dub. I can't speak to the quality of the dubbed track—this reviewing gig doesn't pay me enough to slog through dubbed soundtracks—but the Cantonese track sounds great. In fact, I'm curious whether this is actually the original, because the oft-mocked martial-arts sound effects seem reasonably controlled here, as though maybe they'd been toned down for "sophisticated" American ears. (I was tempted to see if the effects were identical on the English dub, but I just couldn't bring myself to pull the pin on that grenade.) There's adequate but not overwhelming surround coverage during all the action, and the dialogue in well-centered and distinct.
Worthwhile extras are limited to a pair of brief interview segments: one with star Donnie Yen, who discusses his history with director Yuen Wo-ping, and one with Quentin Tarantino, who sounds like he rolled in from The Lost Weekend to record his addled thoughts about Hong Kong cinema. There's a pointless bit of audio folderol that capsulizes James Venable's score—does anyone watch a martial arts film for the score, for Pete's sake? And there's a collection of trailers for several other releases imported by Dimension, some of which will be eminently familiar to fans of the genre (e.g., Jackie Chan's The Legend of Drunken Master, in which he portrays an adult version of the Wong Fei-hung character seen as a child in Iron Monkey) and some you'll wish weren't so familiar (e.g., Chan's wretched mistaken-identity caper, Twin Dragons).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I'm grateful to Quentin Tarantino for whatever role he played in bringing this movie to DVD in its present, nicely restored form, I wish he'd given us a full-length commentary track instead of a nine-minute interview clip of himself hyperventilating. And why is it that whenever I see Tarantino talking, he reminds me less of the brilliantly verbal characters whose dialogue he scripts and more of one of Jeff Spicoli's stoner buds from Fast Times At Ridgemont High?
About halfway through my first screening of Iron Monkey, I found myself wistfully recalling childhood hours spent in darkened theaters thrilling to what we used to call "kung-fu movies," and realizing that I was having that same joyful experience yet again. This film is a whale of a good time: breathlessly paced; featuring charming, graceful performers; and front-loaded with as much heart-pumping martial arts action as could conceivably be sandwiched into an hour and a half and still leave room for credits and some sketchy semblance of a story.
Yuen Wo-ping and Iron Monkey are acquitted on all charges. Quentin Tarantino is sentenced to watch his own interview clip on endless loop, just on general principle. Miramax is gently chided for not surrounding this fine transfer and film with better additional content. Court is adjourned.
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• Interview with Quentin Tarantino
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