Dir: Yuen Wo Ping. Hong Kong. 1993. 87 mins.
Made in 1993 by Hong Kong action masters Tsui Hark and Yuen Wo Ping, Iron Monkey is considered a modern classic by many martial arts movie aficionados. Miramax's release in North and South America of a spruced up version of the film is clearly intended to reach a broader audience, the kind of audience that has recently embraced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (whose fight scenes Yuen Wo Ping designed) and other martial arts-tinged hits. Iron Monkey doesn't have Crouching Tiger's arthouse sheen or cross-cultural lyricism and is not likely to come anywhere close to the latter's $128m US gross. But, with its Robin Hood theme and dazzling fight sequences, it could still pull in a significant number of mainstream US cinemagoers.
The mid-19th century story takes place in an Eastern province of China where a corrupt imperial governor (Wong) is withholding food from his people for his own profit. The people's only defender is a folk hero known as the Iron Monkey (Yu Ruang-Guang, a major Asian star best known in the US for Project S and a supporting role in Shanghai Noon), a masked vigilante who embarrasses the governor's men with his martial arts skills and distributes food and money to the poor. Desperate to capture his foe, the governor rounds up any and all suspicious characters, including visiting physician and martial artist Wong Kei-ying (Yen, an Asian stalwart most recently seen in the West in Highlander: Endgame) and his son Wong Fei-hong (Tsang Sze-Man). To rescue his son from the governor's clutches, Wong Fei-hong ends up joining forces with the Iron Monkey in a climactic battle with a Shaolin Monk turned imperial official (Yen Yee-Kwan).
For the theatrical release of the film (previously known to most Western fans on video cassette and DVD), Miramax has prepared a restored print with visually clear and linguistically coherent English sub-titles and, according to the press notes, some "tightened up" fight scenes.
The latter are Iron Monkey's biggest asset: using a variety of camera and stunt techniques, Yuen Wo Ping (who also worked on The Matrix and whose directing credits include some of Jackie Chan's early hits) produces some startling action moments and a beautifully choreographed finale that has its three combatants battling atop burning wooden columns.
The film's potential liabilities, in the US market at least, include its broad sense of humour and production design that clearly made the most of the $2.3m budget but sometimes looks cramped and studio-bound by Hollywood standards.
Prod cos: Miramax Films, Media Asia, Golden Harvest and Quentin Tarantino present an L S Pictures Ltd, Film Work Shop production.
US dist: Miramax
Int'l sales: Media Asia
Prod: .Tsui Hark
Exec prods: Raymond Chow, Wang Ying Hsiang, Harvey Weinstein, Mark Gill
Scr: Tsui Hark, Elsa Tang, Lau Tai Mok
Cinematography: Arthur Wong
Ed: Chi Wai Chan, Angie Lam
Prod des: Ringo Cheung
Music: Richard Yuen
Main cast: Yu Ruang-Guang, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, Tsang Sze-Man, Yuen Shun-Yi, James Wong, Yen Yee-Kwan.