Starring Yu Rong Guang, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, Tsang Sze Man, Yen Yee Kwan
Fight Choreography by Yuen Cheng Yen and Yuen Shun Yi
Directed by Yuen Woo Ping
Yuen Woo Ping is without a doubt the greatest martial arts choreographer ever. The best and biggest Martial Arts stars have been under him in one way or another, and he’s had a hand in some of their biggest films. Drunken Master, Fist of Legend, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Snake in Eagle’s Shadow just to name the very, very few, and one of his best is Iron Monkey.
The film starts in the small town of Chekiang, a town run by a corrupt and evil governor Cheng who taxes the people into poverty, but he has a problem. There is a costumed man named Iron Monkey who steals from Cheng and gives the money to the poor in a classic Robin Hood manner. Each night Chief Fox, a kind-hearted but really out of his league leader of the police force, devises a plan to catch Iron Monkey each night, and each night fails miserably. Iron Monkey is in fact the local doctor Mr. Yang, and with his assistant Miss Orchid help the people during the day, overcharging the rich and not charging the poor at all, and misdirect Chief Fox when they can.
The first fight really sets the tone for the film as the Iron Monkey takes on a group of Shaolin Monks who are hired to capture him (you’ll notice the Shaolin monks, in a change of pace, are bad guys in this one for reasons to be explained(?) later.) The fight is furious and fun, still full of fast and graceful movement and that dance-like choreography that Woo Ping is famous for, and you’ll find yourself laughing and marvelling at the fights all at once. Suffice to say they do not capture Iron Monkey, but neither does he get the chest of gold the Governor is trying to hide.
The next day Wong Kei-Ying (Yen), a most famous doctor and martial arts master arrives with his son Wong Fei-Hung (Man), who will become one of China’s greatest heroes, is just a little boy here, and it’s fun to see that Ping borrowed some of this iteration’s Fei-Hung from Jackie Chan’s teenage version in the Drunken Master films, and Jet Li’s Once Upon A Time In China’s rendition, and of course Tak Hing-Kwan’s version from Magnificent Butcher (He’s played the Fei-Hung character over 60 times!)
They come at a bad time as Chief Fox has decreed that anyone looking, acting, or doing anything that looks monkey-like is to be arrested, which leads to a hilarious montage of guys getting busted for exactly this. After beating a group of bullies who were about to come after Fei-Hung in yet another masterful showing by Yen, both Kei-Ying and Fei-Fung are arrested for fighting so well. All arrested individuals are brought before the Cheng, but before Fei-Hung can be branded, because the governor is a douchebag, the real Iron Monkey shows up to prove none of those captured are him.
Wong Kei-Ying, not understanding the situation, goes after the Iron Monkey in a tremendously good fight as Yen and Guang really go after it, and their fight is appropriately awesome. Iron Monkey escapes, but Fei-Hung is held prisoner as Cheng charges that Kei-Ying capture the Iron Monkey if he wants his son back. Chief Fox promises to look after him, and Kei-Ying goes into the city but finds that no one will sell him food or shelter because the Iron Monkey is so beloved. He is taken in by Dr. Yang and Miss Orchid, but all are unaware that they have bigger problems as a Shaolin Traitor, now the Royal Minister arrives in town, and they must beat him, because Shaolin traitors are terrifyingly evil, and this particular one is a douche. Soon Kei-Ying will have to team up with the Iron Monkey, as he along with his son and Miss Orchid stand between the Royal Minister and total domination, or something like that.
This is probably one of the most fun of the Woo-Ping films. There is lots of comedy, mixed in with serious scenes and over-the-top wire work. Yu Rong Guang does a great job as the Iron Monkey and Dr. Yang, centering the film despite all the amazing things he does and sees. He is both serious and playful all at once, and unafraid to toss quips like Spider-Man. His fights with the Shaolin Traitor’s henchmen is terrific, especially with the scarred virgin warrior, whom he insults at every opportunity as he kicks her ass. Yen is great as Wong Kei-Ying, playing him seriously but still incorporating comedic moments for the character. His fights are fantastic, the best being the first fight with the Shaolin Traitor, and his demonstration of the Shadow Kick. Donnie really brings the foot work in this film, but the real treat may be Tsang Sze Man as Wong Fei-Hung. She really (yes, Fei-Hung is played by a girl this time out) pulls out all of the stops in the fights with the bullies and their boss, and the best being her fight with the Shaolin Traitors. The fight choreography takes real advantage of her size, and showcases her impressive skills, particularly with staff forms. Jean Wang is fantastic as Miss Orchid, and it’s funny to see her here, since she will play Aunt May, in Once Upon a Time in China 4,5, and 6. She brings a grace and beauty to the screen, and her fights are also full of grace and footwork.
This film is actually more famous than those who starred in it. It didn’t make anyone who was in this film a superstar at the time, and in the case of Donnie Yen would happen much later, but the sum is greater than the parts, and the sum is credited to Woo-Ping, who makes a fun, thrilling film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. He hits just the right beats, and each fight gets more fun than the last, culminating in a final fight on a series of burning poles with a lake of fire below that has to be seen to be believed, but Woo-Ping pulls it off. His fights help to move the story along, never stopping the advancement of the story as so many films do, and all of the characters fight according to their personalities, which is common sense to say to but not always easy to pull off, which is why Woo-Ping is truly a master of film, and Iron Monkey is one of his classics. A great intro film to those unfamiliar with Woo-Ping.
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):
CHOREOGRAPHY: (10) The fights are plentiful and take many different forms, from funny to deadly, and sometimes within the same fight. Every performer gives their all in this, and it really shows. Each fight escalates, and the lyrical choreography changes notes like a symphony on a dime.
STUNTWORK: (10) Yeah, they went all out for this. There are a lot of really painful falls, and they really sold the fight scenes. Their timing on the fights are perfect, and the wire work they do is great to cring-inducingly amazing.
STAR POWER:(9) Yu Rong Guang is great here, and would go on to do films like Shanghai Noon and the new Karate Kid, but never really achieved any superstardom, but neither had Donnie Yen until the last six years, and Jean Wang would go on to do more great films, and this would be Tsang Sze Man’s only film, and she would later become a police officer, but if you only have one film, Holy crap, what a film to do!
FINAL GRADE: (10) Iron Monkey is one of the best martial arts films you could watch, and Woo-Ping created a Robin Hood story that is still readily accessible to this day with some of the best fight scenes recorded on film.
NEXT: Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson take on Roger Yuan and Yu Rong Guang in Shanghai Noon!