Wonderfully kinetic and screwy, IRON MONKEY is a Hong Kong action epic set in 1858 China, about a local Robin Hood who bears the title nickname. Apart from a mixture of soulfulness and camp that may not be to everybody's taste, it has just about everything period action/adventure fans could want.
The Iron Monkey steals from the greedy governor (James Wong) of the province to feed the peasants, who (understandably) revere their masked protector. The governor (also understandably) puts a bounty on the Iron Monkey, but no one is skillful enough to claim it. The benevolent Dr. Yang (Yu Rong-Guang) and his dedicated assistant Miss Orchid (Jean Wang) also do what they can to help the poor while sharing a secret. They befriend newcomers Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) and his young son Wong Fei-Hong (Tsang Sze-Man). The elder Wong is a strict but loving father and a famous martial artist, whose talents the governor seeks to co-opt in his war against the Monkey. Wong soon finds himself with divided loyalties. Meanwhile, an old adversary (Yen Yee-Kwan) of Wong's arrives, ready to kill anyone who stands in his way.
IRON MONKEY has scenes of deliberate comedy, but it is also breathlessly straight-faced and earnest in ways that seldom occur in American movies. It has an old-fashioned melodramatic tone that is over-the-top, but sits well with its period setting. There's something comforting about the way the characters are codified tenderhearted hero, stern hero, major villain, comic villain, etc. The actors are all at ease with the extremes of their roles, and even allowing for movie magic they are all tremendous athletes.
In some ways, IRON MONKEY is a prequel to the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, which starred Jet Li as the adult Wong Fei-Hong. Wong Fei-Hong and his father, Kei-Ying, are real historical figures, although it's a safe bet that Fei-Hong's childhood differed somewhat from what we see here. The boy Fei-Hong gets a fair amount of screen time, but it's the senior Wong who shares focus with the Iron Monkey. Yen and Yu both seem totally at home in their roles Yen as severe and anguished, Yu radiating kindness tempered with a trickster's humor and both are thrilling to watch in motion. Wang makes sense of a role that calls for her to be both genuinely ladylike and a kick-ass warrior, while Yen Yee-Kwan plays the big bad with relish.
Writers Tsui Hark (who also produced), Elsa Tang and Lau Tai Mok create likable, if broadly drawn, characters and structure the story so that there's an opening for action around every corner; it seems that the wirework starts almost before the film does. Director Yuen Wo Ping gives MONKEY the look of a lavish Technicolor spectacle from the '50s, with dazzling costumes and makeup. He also stages some incredible confrontations and stunts, including one in which combatants battle while atop flaming poles in the midst of a raging inferno.
One minor complaint: the U.S. release of IRON MONKEY (originally made in 1993) is dubbed from one Chinese dialect into another, with English subtitles. We can still appreciate the performances, but it would have been nice to hear the actors' real voices.
This carp aside, IRON MONKEY is vigorous, heroic fun of the kind Errol Flynn would have enjoyed in his heyday if he could have kept up with the company.
Reviewed Format: Theatrical Release
Stars: Yu Rong-Guang, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, Tzang Tze-Man
Writer: Tsui Hark, Elsa Tang, Lau Tai Mok
Director: Yuen Wo Ping
Distributor: Miramax/Media Asia/Golden Harvest