Yuen Wo-ping may have made a name for himself with North American audiences by choreographing the breathtaking martial arts sequences in "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", but in his native Hong Kong, he has been an acclaimed director of martial arts films since 1978. Over the past quarter-century, Yuen has been at the helm of a number of classic Hong Kong actioners, such as his directorial debut "Drunken Master (Zui Quan)" (featuring a young Jackie Chan), the cult sci-fi fantasy "Wicked City (Yao shou du shi)", and "Fist of Legend (Jing wu ying xiong)", which is probably one of the best films Jet Li made during his Hong Kong days. With Yuen now a hot property in Hollywood and audience interest at an all-time high for martial arts features, Quentin Tarantino (remember him?) has gone into the vault and dusted off Yuen's directorial effort from 1993, "Iron Monkey (Siunin Wong Feing-hung Tsi Titmalau)".
The setting for "Iron Monkey" is 19th century China in Zhejing province, where the local governor (James Wong, heard recently in the animated "Chinese Ghost Story") and his constabulary are trying to capture an elusive figure who calls himself 'Iron Monkey'. Dressed in black and his face hidden by a mask, this 'Robin Hood'-like figure steals from the rich (including the governor and his nine wives) and gives to the downtrodden poor, many of whom are refugees from the surrounding countryside. However, what the governor and his chief of security (Yuen Shun-yi of "Forbidden City Cop") don't know is that the Iron Monkey's secret identity is the mild-mannered Dr. Yang (Yu Rong-guang, seen recently in "Shanghai Noon"), who runs a clinic in town with the beautiful Miss Orchid (Jean Wang).
Matters are further complicated with the arrival of martial arts practitioner Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen, who will be appearing in "Blade 2") and his young son Wong Fei-hong (who is actually played by a girl, Tsang Sze-man). For the uninitiated, Wong Kei-ying and Fei-hong are actual historical figures, whose exploits during China's tumultuous Qing Dynasty made them folk heroes-- over the past half century, more films have been about Wong Fei-hong than any other figure in Chinese history, some of which include "The Legend of the Drunken Master" and the "Once Upon a Time in China" series. Digressing aside, the Wongs are arrested by the governor's troops, who believe that Kei-ying might be the Iron Monkey because of his martial arts prowess. However, even when Kei-ying's innocence is proven, the corrupt governor coerces him into catching the Iron Monkey by holding Fei-hong hostage and threatening to throw them both in the dungeon if no progress is made within a week.
If you are expecting another "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", then you might be somewhat disappointed by what "Iron Monkey" has to offer. Whereas the former featured a Jane Austen-style script subtly-acted by top-shelf actors, "Iron Monkey" is more of an exploitation flick, executed with not-so-subtle acting and interspersed with comedy, such of which works (the governor's troops arresting everyone who might be the Iron Monkey, including an actual monkey) and some of which don't (such as a sequence where Dr. Yang and Miss Orchid hoodwink the governor by impersonating a high-ranking Chinese official).
However, the main reason why audiences will be seeing "Iron Monkey" is, of course, the over-the-top fight sequences. For those audience members who have never seen a wu shu-style martial arts film before (other than "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), they will notice many similarities in how fight sequences are choreographed in "Iron Monkey", including the extensive use of gravity-defying wire-work. However, given that most of the actors in "Iron Monkey" are accomplished martial arts experts, the fight sequences are far more elaborate and even more hyper-kinetic, even putting the Zhang Ziyi-Michelle Yeoh showdown in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to shame. Some of the more impressive action set pieces include Miss Orchid fighting off a handful of fallen Shaolin monks, the pint-sized Fei-hong fighting off a gang of robbers armed with whatever is handy, and the film's grand finale, featuring a pitched battle over a raging fire, with the combatants perched atop wooden posts. And though these fight sequences dominate most of the film's short 90-minute running time, they never get boring, as Yuen throws enough variety to keep things interesting.
As mentioned earlier, the acting in "Iron Monkey" is executed in the over-the-top style that one usually associates with Hong Kong films (where the bad guys let off an evil laugh after each line of dialogue just to show how truly wicked they are). However, among the main cast, the performances are mostly satisfactory. Young actress Tsang steals many of her scenes as the spirited and spunky young Fei-hong, a sharp contrast to the stern portrayal of the conservative Kei-ying by Yen. Wang, better known for her recurring role as Aunt May in the "Once Upon a Time in China" franchise, acquits herself nicely as the gentle and graceful Miss Orchid, as does Yu, whose physicality is impressive as the Iron Monkey, who pretty well gets into a scrap with the entire cast at one point or another.
While "Iron Monkey" may be short on story and subtlety, it is a showcase for the best that Hong Kong martial arts cinema has to offer, and how Yuen Wo-ping has made a name for himself in the action genre. Though "Iron Monkey" tanked at the Hong Kong when it was first released in 1993, it developed a cult following in its subsequent video and DVD releases, thanks to its unforgettable fight sequences. With a newly-remastered print and bold new English subtitles, "Iron Monkey" looks even better than it did eight years ago, and will certainly be a treat for both long-time fans of martial arts films, as well as the newly-converted.