Desperate times call for desperate comic measures. In these bluesy days following the WTC tragedy and bombings in Afghanistan, Hollywood studios should be trying harder than ever to get back to their original aim: providing entertainment. Unfortunately, they're too busy erasing twin towers (or anything remotely related to them) from every film, ad, and TV show, proving what cinema-goers have suspected for the last two years: Hollywood would rather protect their bottom line, than relieve their audience from the misery surrounding them.
However, yippee for the exception to the rule! Just in the nick of time, Miramax has re-released a humdinger of a martial arts-comedy from 1993; the little-seen but highly respected Iron Monkey. Directed by Yuen Wo Ping (who helmed Drunken Master, Twin Warriors, and provided action choreography for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix), this slam-bang vigilante flick has been touted as an artsy ass-kicker in the vein of CTHD--but don't be fooled. Though the cinematography and character development rivals that of Crouching Tiger, Ping's Iron Monkey is a gut-busting, high-flying comedy with a comic-book plot that actually works.
Our story opens in mid-19th century China, where starving refugees fall prey to the greedy gold-lust of the province governor, who is hoarding the people's food. He's protected by renegade Shaolin monks who, frankly, don't act very monk-like, and excel in bullying the locals, as well as forcing themselves on the town's women. Well, goddam it, enough is enough! And so rises up a black-clad champion of the people, known only as the "Iron Monkey." Much like an actual monkey, he hops from rooftop to rooftop (throwing gold at the peasants, instead of poop), and much like "iron," he smashes the soft, easily broken noses of corrupt officials.
Since much of the stolen gold comes from the governor's residence, the high-powered creep sends out his goons in an attempt to flush out the "Iron Monkey." Unfortunately, anyone who utters the word "monkey," (or for that matter, owns a monkey) immediately becomes a suspect, and is tossed in the clink. Two of these suspects include famous physician and martial artist Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen), and his ten-year-old son Wong Fei Hong (Tsang Sze Man). Since Wong Sr. is no slouch in the booty-kicking department, he is given a choice: capture the "Iron Monkey," or his son rots in jail.
Here's the pisser, though! In actuality, the "Iron Monkey" is his newfound friend, Dr. Yang (Yu Rong Guang), who is ably assisted by his hottie nurse Miss Orchid (Jean Wang). What follows is not only a comedy of errors where Dr. Yang must sneak around under the nose of Wong, but a surprisingly touching tale of familial love, as the young Wong is taken underneath the caring wings of Yang and Orchid.
But let's not forget about the ass-whuppin's! Iron Monkey features almost a two-to-one ratio of awesome fight scenes vs. people standing around blabbing. This includes tons of director Ping's famous "wire fu" antics, where heroes and villains alike fly over rooftops and smash through walls. And while the comedy is broad--to say the least!--the mechanics of the martial arts scenes are thrillingly precise, and often gasp-inducing. In fact, the scenes that work best are combinations of high-flying chop sockery and over-the-top humor, such as when our heroes gleefully announce each of their trademark moves ("Claw of Eagle!" "Shadow Kicks!") before using them on their foes.
While Iron Monkey probably won't spawn many chin-rubbing philosophical discussions, this flick is the same sort of all-out, childlike crowd pleaser that Spielberg made when he constructed Raiders of the Lost Ark, featuring fallible heroes who an audience can actually grow to care about.