Only two social classes existed in the tiny town of Chekian, China, circa 1858: the peasant citizenry, and those who lived in the Governor’s palace. Lawlessness was the order of the day; the streets of Chekian crawled with scum and villainy of every degree, from pickpockets to kidnappers to roving gangs of thugs and extortionists. The worst of all was none other than Governor Cheng himself, the greedy and corrupt ruler of the town (James Wong). The governor’s latest profitable but nefarious practice: to hoard the town food supply and gouge the poor and starving for every sliver of their meager livings. Fortunately for these peasants, they have one advocate with the smarts and the guts to stand up for them: the mysterious Iron Monkey (Ronggaung Yu). To the Governor, he’s a masked rogue fit to be tortured when caught, but to the people he’s a saint clad in black, the Chinese Robin Hood or Zorro, a swashbuckling super ninja who employs his skills mainly in pilfering gold from the governor’s house, oftentimes from right under his nose.
The governor doesn’t just hate Iron Monkey, he’s absolutely terrified of him (as demonstrated in typical over-the-top, grindhouse kung-fu style histrionics). He’s gone to all sorts of measures in an effort to capture this righteous and elusive bandit, from doubling his private security staff, to setting elaborate traps, to hiring powerful but corrupt Shaolin monks. Try as he might, nothing works, and the Iron Monkey always escapes with his prize. Come hell or high water, Cheng is going to stop Iron Monkey once and for all. His underhanded technique uses the son of a Shaolin monk to get the father to promise to bring down the Monkey.
I don’t want to spoil any of the ‘twists’ (using that term loosely) for those who haven’t had the legitimate pleasure of seeing Iron Monkey. Suffice it to say that anyone who’s ever watched a Hong Kong Chop Socky extravaganza (or read an American super hero comic), such as this one, won’t find any real surprises from a narrative standpoint. Nonetheless, Iron Monkey is a welcome departure from the plot lines used in probably seven out of ten HK movies: bad guy kills older brother/father/master, and ten years later younger brother/son/student enters a tournament to defeat bad guy soundly. Even so, the story, while not entirely complicated or original, is interesting enough to keep the viewer mildly engaged, as opposed to counting the seconds to the next fight scene (not very many).
Comparison to the film to which Iron Monkey owes its entrée into American cinema last year, the award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, reveals that the films have strikingly little in common. The engrossing and genuine love stories that ran parallel in Ang Lee’s masterpiece definitely get the better of the mere hint of romance in Iron Monkey. So if the story isn’t tremendous, the characters aren’t exactly well rounded, the dialog is at best “charmingly simple”, and the performances are chock full of over-the top-deliveries and funny facial contortions, what then is the reason for comparison, besides geological birthplace? The answer: Iron Monkey’s mind-boggling kung fu choreography, superior in every way to that in (additional Woo-ping Yuen titles) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and making The Matrix look like schoolyard scuffling.
Is that really enough to get this movie a “4”? As we’ve discovered with The Magnificent Butcher, the answer is “yes.” We watch these kung-fu movies for one thing, and one thing only: super fast, humanly impossible kung fu action, delivered early, often, and with blinding speed. In that dimension more than any other, Iron Monkey delivers like no film I’ve seen on DVD. It takes less than four minutes from the opening credits for Iron Monkey to put the beat down on a dozen security guards, and from that point on, a viewer is hard pressed to find a stretch of seven minutes without serious karate action. Everyone except the governor gets into some sort of elaborate fight, from the young Wong Fei Ho to Monkey’s sidekick Miss Orchid (probably the best fight in the movie). I liked Iron Monkey because I was there expecting nothing but kung-fu fun, which this movie delivers with a creativity, a sense of humor, and jaw-droppingly complicated choreography like I’ve never seen. In short, the appeal of Iron Monkey is in its happy satisfaction with itself. It doesn’t try to be anything but an action packed, glossed up, Saturday afternoon kung-fu movie. Is it a better film than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Not in my book, not even close. Is it more fun? Without a doubt.
Iron Monkey is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/Mpeg-4 codec. The bit rate stays in the mid 20’s mbps. There is a bit more detail than the DVD version of the film. Black levels are also quite a bit tighter. Though I’m sure Tarantino took fine care of the print stored away in his film “vault,” the fact remains that Iron Monkey is not a brand new film with a young master transfer. This film was born in Hong Kong in 1993, and at times shows a few age spots if one is looking close enough. It’s been restored to its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, enhanced anamorphically for widescreen televisions. The many nighttime exterior shots look fantastic. Shadow detail and black depth are phenomenal, and the few but impressive high contrast shots don’t show any signs of pixelation. The daytime shots tend to betray more than a bit of image grain. The transfer also seems to have warts like tiny vertical streaking, a compression artifact here or there, and minor edge enhancement, but again, it’s nothing distracting. Colors look wonderfully bright and true, flesh tones are natural and consistent throughout.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is pretty solid for what it needs to do. I opted for the English language version here, so the dialog does tend to stand out and not fit the ambiance of the film. It’s extremely active in all six channels, so active that I actually wondered if the sound hadn’t been entirely re-recorded and re-designed for the format. Ample opportunities to shine present themselves from the first five minutes of the film, and continuously arise all the way through the 90-plus minutes. Some monk or ninja is constantly crashing through windows or zooming in from the roof, giving the rear channels plenty of soundpans and localization to handle. The forward track contains too many localization effects to note. I didn’t notice a lot of action out of the subwoofer, as it only clicks on once or twice, most notably in the “final showdown” fight, a Hong Kong Film tradition. English subtitles and closed captions are also included.
The first bonus feature I checked out was the Quentin Tarantino Interview, proving that yes, Quentin Tarantino is still alive, even if his status as “Hollywood Darling” has long since been pushing up daisies. He’s been keeping a print in his ‘vault’ for a while, and exposed this one to a film festival audience in Austin a couple of years ago to great success. The only other extra is an Interview with Donny Yen, the premiere martial artist turned movie star, and the man who plays Wong Kei Ying in the film. He discusses things like the various styles used in filming, what it was like to work with such a creative director and choreographer team, and how he became involved in the movie business. Lasting right around six minutes, this doesn’t exactly qualify as riveting or informative.
Where’s the trailer? Where’s the TV spots? It’s apparently a prequel to a series of films, but neither interviewee mentions them, so I have no place to turn to follow the adventures of Wong Fei Ho! Thanks for whetting the appetite of the American consumer for more of this sophisticated, polished and fun type of cinema, but this movie deserves more. Non value adders include a section of sneak peeks and a short score medley.
In spite of the unfortunate fact that Dimension drops the ball on Iron Monkey’s extras package AND the seemingly extravagant asking price of nearly $30, I have no problem recommending this disc. Though it doesn’t have nearly the broad appeal that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does, it’s packed with non-stop karate action at a blinding speed. If you’re looking for a great way to spend ninety minutes, round up Iron Monkey, pop up some popcorn and enjoy.
Much of this review comes from our Upcomingdiscs DVD review of the film.