UK Release Date: 18th June 2018
Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Writer: Tsui Hark, Cheung Tan, Tang Elsa, Lau Tai-Mok
Starring: Donnie Yen, Yu Rongguang, Angie Tsang, Jean Wang, Yuen Shun-yi, Yen Shi-kwan
Synopsis: A martial arts expert who is wrongly arrested by a corrupt governor attempts to track down a masked vigilante who has been causing problems.
There’s a certain creaky charm to 1990s martial arts movies. They’re notorious for their badly dubbed dialogue, ridiculous plotting and over-cranked action set pieces. One of the most widely loved of these movies is Iron Monkey, which is arriving on Blu-ray in the UK courtesy of a new release from the guys at Eureka Video. It’s certainly an enjoyable martial arts actioner with some pleasingly wild fight choreography, but it’s also a preposterous and nonsensical journey through a world that never quite feels complete.
The plot centres around the mysterious ace fighter and vigilante of the title, who is secretly physician Dr Yang (Yu Rongguang). Iron Monkey has made himself a Robin Hood-esque figure in the community and so is beloved by poor local residents, while being the scourge of bungling lawman Fox (Yuen Shun-yi). A case of mistaken identity leads to kung fu expert Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen) and his son Fei-hung (Angie Tsang) being arrested, only for an impressive scuffle to lead to the government hiring Kei-ying to hunt Iron Monkey and win his freedom. The arrival of Shaolin traitor Hin-hung (Yen Shi-kwan) adds further stakes.
During the lengthy fight sequences, it’s impossible not to really enjoy Iron Monkey. The action is intricate and well constructed, showcasing the remarkable fighting skills of the cast. Donnie Yen, who most recently caught the attention of Western audiences with a scene-stealing role in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is a particular highlight, bringing charisma to his leading role and forming a surprisingly tender bond with Angie Tsang, who showcases perfect comic timing as his son. Yen Shi-kwan also stands out as a compelling villain, well worthy of the fiery final fight scene, which is a masterclass of balance and invention.
Unfortunately, the plot is a tangled mess that doesn’t make much sense and the dialogue is packed with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it intricacies about Shaolin traitors and betrayals of honour. Often, characters will pause mid-fight in order to yell the name of a particular kung fu move they are about to perform and thus the action lacks the spontaneity and sense of near-realism that has become the preserve and indeed the trademark of movies like The Raid and John Wick.
That comparison, though, doesn’t do justice to Iron Monkey, which was pulling off staggering martial arts action decades before the current boom in crunching, tightly engineered on-screen fighting. It’s all a little silly and the comedy doesn’t sit particularly well against the more serious violence, but there’s no denying the intricacy and thrill of the action, which is after all, the main selling point for a story like this.
There’s a huge selection of interviews with the main people involved in the film, as well as some making of stuff focusing on the fights.
Pop or Poop?
It might not have aged particularly well in the 25 years since it first hit the big screen, but Iron Monkey remains a fun martial arts thriller that has plenty of fizz and energy in its fight sequences. There are some misjudged moments of comedy and you need a degree in the theology of Shaolin Buddhism to follow some of the story elements, but that seldom detracts from the joy of seeing lots of very talented fighters kick, punch and whack each other with fists, feet and anything else they can get their hands on.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Iron Monkey is available on Blu-ray in the UK now, courtesy of Eureka Video.