Iron Monkey Review
Imagine a version of Robin Hood or Zorro where the hero was more superhero-like with special powers. That’s sort of where we find Iron Monkey (1993), a natural progression from director Yuen Woo-ping’s 1978 Drunken Master. While the earlier film is played for laughs and this one is more serious, both reference real-life Kung-Fu legend Wong Fei-hung. Fei-hung was a physician with a penchant for beating up gangsters with a staff. I think we can be sure he didn’t learn his skills from a drunken hermit, as Jackie Chan portrayed him; and the child version played by Angie Tsang in Iron Monkey is more feasible, yet the film is equally ridiculous, as heroes and villains battle one another with special stances that they shout out as they perform them: “Shadowless Kick!”; “King Kong Palm!”.
I say ridiculous because it is, but it’s hardly fair. It’s only as daft as it is entertaining and while these films couldn’t be much sillier, they are no more so than an Iron Man or even The Matrix, on which Yuen Woo-ping was fight choreographer. You can see from Iron Monkey just how much of an influence he probably had over the Wachowskis' film, or at least they worked around him because his work is breathtakingly good and there is a tangible power in his set-pieces. That’s why we’re here, really, for the solid, bone-crunching action. You get that in spades in Iron Monkey, complete with a super-powered evil monk that can shoot telescopic sleeves. Don’t scoff! Believe me, you don’t want to be on the wrong end. This is Kung-Fu with added exploding masonry.
Iron Monkey is brilliant fun. As with the modern comic-book equivalents, such daft action works because the cast sells it in two ways; when they aren’t fighting, they’re earnest, believable and charming and when they do fight, it is spectacular. Donnie Yen is almost as synonymous with martial arts for Western audiences as Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, his skill breathtaking, but he is only one of many. Yu Rong-kwong plays the titular Iron Monkey with similar athleticism and young Angie Tsang is just as convincing. Jean Wang is excellent too in the strong role of Iron Monkey's partner. Put a skilled cast like that in the hands of Yuen Woo-ping and something magic happens.
A little bit of magic was needed on the script, the exposition-heavy dialogue having none of the grace of the fights, but still, it gets the job done and outside of the scraps, the interplay between the characters is easy and charming. The story has a sense of the adventure and courage such as that in a Robin Hood style folk-tale.
It’s odd how they don’t even try to do it tongue-in -cheek, whereas the heritage of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is in these crude films and they still work better than Ang Lee’s supposedly more beautiful, more measured, more proper-film version. The best bit of Lee’s movie was Yuen Woo-ping’s fight sequences, again, but their sting was lessened by the glacial pacing and po-faced seriousness. Drunken Master, Iron Monkey, plus all of Jackie Chan’s work in the Three Brother’s era, is more honest.
Occasional strange angles and a blue filter here or there remind you, this is a 90s film. Otherwise, the production design is bright and detailed, which Eureka!’s brand new 2K restored transfer reproduces perfectly. It’s pin-sharp and the contrast is well balanced, at least when the film wishes it to be so. Even in the most abstract scenes, Yuen Woo-ping favours a lot of movement and dust. You really feel those shadowless kicks land.
The score is the one element that lets Iron Monkey down. It dates the film and can be annoyingly off-putting. As for the sound design overall, if you are a fan of this genre you already know to expect very little. The dubbing and over-the-top effects are part of the charm. This is no demonstration disc, but Eureka! have included several options.
The 5.1 Cantonese track is wide-open, if clumsy. It has its moments though lacks focus. The Cantonese Mono makes more sense and for me was the best choice. Voices are clear and centred and the effects have a decent punch. Mandarin Stereo, on the other hand, is better for those effects, compromising the centred dialogue. English subtitles are included of course, or alternatively, there is an appalling English dub. There is an argument that many of these kinds of movies were dubbed anyway, so you might as well have the characters speaking English. That doesn’t work for me, because at least with the original audio there’s a good chance it’s the actor’s voice. The Cantonese Mono is perfectly fine and far more suitable to the movie.
With newly commissioned sleeve art, this a beautifully packaged release from the dependable Eureka! label and while a commentary such as those from the Hong Kong Legends series a few years ago is missed, there's a bounty of substantial interviews and clips. The initial print run will include a limited edition 'O' card and collector's booklet too.
Interview with Donnie Yen (20m)
Interview with producer Tsui Hark (25m)
Interview with Yu Rong-kwong (27m)
Interview with Li Fai (25m)
Interview with Angie Tsang (20m)
Iron Fist (16m) - a fascinating look at the action choreography of Iron Monkey
Shadow Boxing (8m) - a wider, if all too brief look at Hong Kong action choreography
Also included is footage of Li Fai and Angie Tsang competing in the 2003 Wu Shu championships.