If you watched The Matrix and sat through the credits, you might’ve seen the name Yuen Woo-Ping pop up. He’s the guy that choreographed all of the kung fu and martial arts sequences. Yeah, he’s the guy who showed Keanu how to kick a little keister. But what you may not know is that Yuen has been around for quite some time in the world of martial arts cinema. Yuen is perhaps best known for the use of wires in his choreography. They were used quite liberally in The Matrix, allowing Keanu et al. to hang in mid-air, delivering punches and kicks while literally gliding through a hail of bullets. But Yuen has done it all before. It’s just now that, thanks to The Matrix, Americans are finally catching a glimpse into the world of Hong Kong and martial arts action flicks.
Besides doing fight and stunt choreography, Yuen has also directed his share of films. He directed Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master (often considered one of the greatest martial arts films of all time) and the incredibly silly Wing Chun (which, if you can make it through slapstick-esque sendup of the Battle of the Sexes, is halfway decent).
In a movie like Iron Monkey, it’s pretty pointless to try and pretend you’ve got a deep plot, because if you’ve half a brain, you’ll see the twists coming within the first 15 minutes of the film. Rongguang Yu (My Father Is a Hero) plays Dr. Chang, a kindhearted physician who moonlights as the Iron Monkey, who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. After Iron Monkey has crossed the authorities one too many times, the governor decides to arrest anyone suspected of being the Iron Monkey. In walks Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen in a great performance) and his son, young Wong Fei-Hong.
After dispatching some local bandits with incredible ease and kung fu prowess, the Wongs are arrested and charged with being Iron Monkey. Kei-Ying promises to capture Iron Monkey in exchange for the freedom of everyone else. The governor agrees, but being the bastard he is, keeps Fei-Hong as insurance. Confused? Well, don’t worry because the film is actually quite easy to follow. The plot leads quite nicely into the many elaborately choreographed fights that fill this film to the brim (and let’s face it, that’s why you watch it and you know it).
The martial arts in this film are quite good, if not a tad bit over the top. Those accustomed to American action films, with all of their testosterone, will just find it silly, if not annoying. The wire action is used very well, although it definitely involves the suspension of disbelief (npi). Yu and Yen both give great performances. And the Shaolin monks they fight at the end definitely have some of the more unique attacks I’ve seen in awhile. (You’ll see what I mean with “The Wonder Palm.”)
Most of the humor comes from watching Iron Monkey make the authorities look like fools, as they fall for traps that even a six-year-old could get themselves out of. However, there are scenes that do rise above the normal schlock, and enough background is given on the main characters, especially Dr. Chang and his assistant Orchid and their relationship, that they don’t come across as two-dimensional stereotypes.
I’ve liked this more than other films of the genre, that being the fantasy/historical kung fu period piece. And even though it doesn’t star the big guns (e.g., Jackie Chan, Jet Li), Iron Monkey definitely ranks up there with some of the better martial arts films I’ve seen. And it’s a blast to watch. My friend and I really got into this one, and I even rewound it and watched it again. You won’t see me doing that with 90% of the films I watch.