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'Iron Monkey'

'Iron Monkey' is 'Crouching Tiger' without the epic sweep

Friday, October 12, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

While watching the martial-arts film "Iron Monkey," my son the black belt (second degree, tae kwon do) sized up the plot and the tone of the movie in one concise blow. "This is Zorro," he said, and he's right.

 
 
'Iron Monkey'

RATING: PG-13 for martial arts action/violence and brief sexuality. Subtitled.

STARRING: Yu Rong Guang, Donnie Yen.

DIRECTOR: Yuen Wo Ping.

WEB SITE: www.iron-monkey.com

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

The title character -- a masked man in black who works by night and is a respected member of the community by day -- leaps from rooftops and performs feats of derring-do as he redistributes the wealth of a corrupt provincial governor who is starving the populace for his own gain. The governor's official military chief is a likable bumbler more interested in his own comfort than in catching the Iron Monkey, for whom he's no match.

"Iron Monkey," my son opined afterward, was no match for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and he's right about that, too. One is pulp prose, the other is palpable poetry. Few martial-arts movies will withstand the comparison.

But similarities exist, and for good reason. The director of "Iron Monkey," Yuen Wo Ping, choreographed the action sequences in "Crouching Tiger" and also the stunning fight scenes in "The Matrix."

Yet "Iron Monkey" is hardly a ripoff of the later films. If anything, it inspired them. The movie was originally released in Asia in 1993. Like several of Jackie Chan's Hong Kong productions, it is already available on video. Ah, but in a movie theater, what a big screen we have -- the better to watch it with.

That's one of the film's biggest pleasures -- you can actually see the performers go through every one of their intricate motions. Too many martial-arts movies feel compelled to make a cut every three seconds, ruining the rhythm and artistry of the action scenes. Sometimes it's because the filmmakers have to keep you from seeing the stunt doubles.

That's hardly necessary in "Iron Monkey." Yu Rong Guang, who plays the title role, learned to move athletically while training with Beijing Opera and has starred in Asian action films since 1987. Donnie Yen, who portrays a martial-arts instructor hired by the corrupt governor to defeat Iron Monkey, was a teammate of Jet Li on the Beijing Wushu (kung-fu) team.

Their skill is evident from the first kick. The action scenes emphasize movement over violence, which is not to say that you won't wince when some of the blows land. The movie is not as fanciful or as epic in scope and theme as "Crouching Tiger." But it is nowhere near as vulgar, mean-spirited or brutal as, say, Jet Li's most recent film, "Kiss of the Dragon." The movie has a sense of humor that can be broad at times, but stops short of the way Jackie Chan mugs for the camera.

Part of the fun of "Iron Monkey" is that almost everyone gets into the act, including Miss Orchid (Jean Wang), who assists Iron Monkey in his day job. Tsang Sze-Man, a female martial-arts champion, also gets to kick butt as the son (!) of Yen's character, a lad who grows up to become Wong Fei-Hong, one of China's most famous real-life folk heroes.

The final scene pits the two leads against a renegade Shaolin priest in a battle atop a series of burning wooden poles. It's fairly amazing but stretches out so long that it starts to look like showing off. Even so, I got a kick out of "Iron Monkey."

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