Just as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon introduced a generation of Americans to kung fu films in the 1970s, Ang Lee’s epic blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is reviving interest in the wuxia genre today. Asian martial arts films have long enjoyed cult status among American viewers, but the unexpected success of Crouching Tiger, along with Jet Li and Jackie Chan’s international careers, are increasing the popularity of these films exponentially. Li, for example, has already seen several of his older Hong Kong hits repackaged and re-released in the U.S., such as Black Mask and Twin Warriors (originally Tai-Chi Master).
The next icon poised to enjoy renewed attention is Li’s one-time action choreographer, Woo-Ping Yuen, the man also behind the spectacular fight scenes in Crouching Tiger and The Matrix. Yuen’s resume extends back well over 20 years in the Hong Kong film industry, and his increasing stature in Hollywood is evidenced by Miramax’s decision to re-release theatrically The Iron Monkey, a 1993 film directed and choreographed by Yuen, and one of the most entertaining examples of chop-socky fun to have come out in the last 10 years.
Co-written by action auteur Tsui Hark (Time and Tide, Once Upon a Time In China), Iron Monkey tells the tale of a Robin Hood-like hero, Dr. Yang (Rongguang Yu), who masquerades at night as the black-masked Iron Monkey, fighting and stealing from the greedy and corrupt Governor Chang (James Wong), in order to feed Chang’s impoverished citizens. Chang’s attempts to capture Yang are consistently frustrated, until the arrival of an even greedier and more corrupt official, Monk Hin Hung (Sai-Kun Yam). Hung and Chang force a visiting wuxia master, Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen), to hunt down Yang, by kidnapping Wong’s 12-year-old son, Wong Fei-Hung (Sze-Man Tsang).
The other central players are Dr. Yang’s comely assistant, Orchid (Jean Wang), and the bumbling but good-natured local cop, Master Fox (Shun-Yee Yuen). Though the cast is large, Iron Monkey‘s retelling of the Robin Hood legend is instantly familiar, a line ‘em up and knock ‘em down fight between good and evil. Though the movie isn’t stocked with international stars on the order of a Chow Yun Fat or Jet Li (though both Yu and Yen are veterans in the Hong Kong film industry), the lead performers are charismatic enough to carry the movie.
What the film lacks is a strong female character. A powerful witch (Fai Li) and Orchid get in on some of the action, but for the most part, they’re relegated to the sidelines. And ironically, the main female star isn’t even recognized as such: the female performer Sze-Man Tsang plays the pre-pubescent Wong Fei-Hung, China’s greatest wuxia folk hero, but with her shaved head and queue, there’s no way you’d realize her true gender.
At the same time, Tsang has choice scenes in the movie, as the diminutive fighter deftly fends off opponents much older—and bigger—than she. Because Tsang’s character is still a pupil of the martial arts, rather than a full-fledged master, her fighting sequences are staged with a minimum of wirework, Yuen’s signature FX technique that allows actors to fly through the air, literally. Almost all of the other characters possess superhuman powers and prowess as they kick, spin, and jump with impossible speed and strength. While Yuen’s approach on Crouching Tiger was graceful and ballet-like, portraying realistic human movement, Iron Monkey is almost pure comic book action. Fighters in this movie don’t float or glide toward each other. They rocket, bounce and whip.
When Yuen unleashes the full extent of his wirework expertise, he transforms the action sequences into fantastic spectacles of leaping bodies and violent sparring. The closing fight ranks as one of his greatest acts of choreography, when the Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-Ying finally join forces to take on Hin Hung. Not content to have the three battling it out on the streets or even rooftops, Yuen has them dancing across a series of thick poles—lit on fire, no less—as each fighter struggles not only to attack his opponent, but also maintain his balance at the same time. It’s one of the most brilliantly designed sequences in any wuxia film, and even those who can’t quite suspend their disbelief will marvel at the sheer insanity of the concept and execution. Compared to the recent crop of overblown, CGI-laden action, U.S.-made flops like Tomb Raider and The Mummy Returns, Iron Monkey keeps its charms simple and straight-forward, and rewards its audience with a tale of utmost excitement and enjoyment value.