It’s easy to say that right now the Martial Arts genre is in a bit of a state of flux. For the last couple of decades a handful of stars have ruled the roost, but unfortunately the physical demands of making such movies takes an absurd toll on the bodies of its performers, and men like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Sammo Hung have had to pull back their output compared to their glory days in the ’80s and ’90s. Thankfully, a few have stepped up to take their place, and while many will cite that Tony Jaa may be the front runner of this new breed, I’d say that those looking for both amazing physical fight scenes as well as well-written stories and some acting prowess should look no further than Donnie Yen.
Yen, who has been an upcoming star since the mid-’80s, is currently starring in better Hong Kong action movies than anyone in the country has put out in a decade. His collaborations with Director Wilson Yip, including Killzone, Flashpoint, Dragon Tiger Gate, and Ip Man, are all stunning pieces of work and show an action star at the top of his game, displaying hard to believe physical feats and amazing versatility from picture to picture. The thing is though; it’s not as if this is a new revelation for longtime Hong Kong fans, as Yen has always been one of the best in the business.
Perhaps overshadowed by Li and Chan in the ’90s, the actor was still able to make a name for himself as an unbelievable screen martial artist, with performances in Once Upon a Time in China II and In the Line of Duty 4 able to stand in there with the best of that period. Time and again, Yen proved to be a charismatic performer with an incredible presence and an outstanding knowledge in screen fighting, so it’s no wonder he’s finally risen to the top. Perhaps the spotlight should have been given even sooner though, as going back to these earlier films, you can see just how amazing Yen has always been, especially if you look at the essential movie from that period in his career, Iron Monkey.
Directed by famed choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Fist of Legend, The Matrix), Iron Monkey is perhaps the ultimate example of the type of movie it is trying to be; a very traditional Martial Arts tale of an outlaw hero trying desperately to help the people of his community by battling and stealing from the oppressive local government, all infused with modern choreography and high flying wirework. The movie never tries to stretch itself contextually or emotionally, in a way that films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero were able to do, but instead gives you a straightforward â€œgood vs. evil” tale with fantastic stunts and eye-popping fight scenes. Don’t expect to be dramatically devastated, but do expect to be blown away by the outrageous action.
Yen stars as Wong Kei Ying, a traveling physician (and amazing Kung fu expert) accompanied by his son, who is almost immediately arrested upon coming into town for suspicion of being the notorious outlaw Iron Monkey. Only after the sham of a trial is crashed by the real Iron Monkey (Yu Rong Guang )is Kei Ying released, but under the condition that he bring in the fugitive himself, as his son is still held in prison until Iron Monkey is brought to justice. Setting a plot in motion where hero tracks hero while the villains gather their own forces, the movie is packed with overwhelming action and a lot of broad humor, the combination of which makes this film go down smooth.
What may surprise you is just how good some of these performances end up being. Yen is his usual stalwart self, with his charismatic screen image on full display. His relationship with his son is very well played out, as we see him trying to lovingly look out for him while still assuming the stern father-role. Yen didn’t win any awards for this performance, but it isn’t one-note either. Then again, his Martial Arts skills do a lot of the talking for him here. What I love about this film is the abundance of classic Martial Arts styles used by Yen, a theme that Woo-Ping apparently rebuffed initially, but eventually warmed to after the actor’s insistence. Sure, the use of wirework and sped up photography is present, but it’s blended well with Yen’s expert use of â€œtiger and crane” and other techniques.
Also quite good is Yu Rong Guang in the title role, a country doctor by day, and avenging warrior by night. This is without a doubt the actor’s best performance, getting to shine far more than in more over-the-top roles, such as his villainous character in Jet Li’s The Enforcer. A subtle, yet loving bond between Iron Monkey and his devoted assistant Ms. Orchid (Jean Wang) is handled quite well, but even more admirable is Yu Rong Guang’s funny turn while impersonating an important official.
The real reason to watch the movie, of course, is for some of the best Martial Arts fights that the ’90s were able to produce. Both the principle leads are amazingly showcased, especially in the film’s apocalyptic finale in which both men must balance on poles while certain death by raging inferno flames underneath them. Yu Rong Guang is absolutely no slouch in any of his sequences and may even be the equal to Yen when the two are on screen. In addition, Jean Wang and Angie Tsang as the young Wong Fei Hung also get stupendous fight scenes of their own, with Tsang pulling off some of the best Martial Arts scenes I’ve ever witnessed featuring a small child. Convincing and done without the use of CGI, the sequences show why Yuen Woo-Ping is probably still the most sought after fight choreographer in the world.
Again, Iron Monkey is probably the ultimate example of this type of ’90s Kung fu film, packed with wirework and Martial Arts action, but held together with a very Shaw Bros-era story. The fights and laughs are pretty non-stop, with little touches, like the calling out of techniques (â€œBuddah Palm!” â€œNo Shadow Kick!”) , making this an absolutely joyous experience. This is indispensable viewing for all Martial Arts film fans, especially those of Donnie Yen. While he may finally be considered the top Martial Arts star in the world today, he’s always been a top performer, and this film is just further proof of that.
I’ve seen a boatload of movies from this era, and generally the prints on these movies are pretty terrible. Having seen the original Tai Seng Entertainment release of this film, I can firmly say that Iron Monkey was not an exception to this rule. That is why I can say with great pride that this Blu-ray edition looks absolutely phenomenal, with the sound and picture quality probably the best this movie has ever been throughout its existence. The picture quality alone is enough to warrant a purchase, as Iron Monkey almost looks like a new movie.
The subtitles and Cantonese voice track are also very well done on this edition, a thousand light-years better than the original release, the only drawback being little editorial changes that were made for this American release, most egregiously a funny bit from the end of the film, and the exclusion of a very important Chinese song that takes away some of the importance of the story for Chinese viewers. Also, for some reason some bits of violence that have also been trimmed for this release.
Still all in all, this is a wonderful presentation.
Interview with Quentin Tarantino – This goes about 9 minutes or so, with QT going into a little detail about his love for Hong Kong flicks, as well as his love for this movie. You can tell just how much he loves this genre and his film in particular, even from this short interview, which I wish went on quite a bit longer.
Interview with Donnie Yen – Yen goes into his career and his feeling about this film in this 6 minute interview, which is interesting from start to finish, and has some cool scenes from some of his previous work, but again doesn’t come close to being a really worthwhile extra.
Simply put, Iron Monkey is a breathtaking action film and one of the best examples of 90’s Martial Arts cinema. With wonderful fight scenes, nice comedy and the slightest hint of romance, this belongs on the shelf of any Martial Arts lover. Also, this release boasts the best transfer I’ve ever seen of this film, making the movie look almost new, which is a giant improvement over original editions. All in all, this gets a terrific recommendation.
Miramax presents Iron Monkey. Directed by: Yuen Woo-Ping. Starring: Donnie Yen, Yu Rong Guang, Jean Wang, Tsang Sze Man, and Yuen Shun-Yi. Written by: Tsui Hark, Cheung Tan, Lau Tai-Muk, Tang Pik-yin, and Elsa Tang. Running time: 85 mins. Rating: PG-13. Released on Blu-ray: September 15, 2009. Available at Amazon.com
Tags: Donnie Yen