Studio cashes in on 'Crouching Tiger' craze with souped-up release of kung fu classic 'Iron Monkey'
In a transparent attempt to jump on the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" bandwagon, Miramax has dug up one of the 1990s' very best feudal China kung fu flicks and given it a big budget makeover.
"Iron Monkey" is a "Robin Hood"-like fable about a masked martial artist who wreaks havoc upon a corrupt, oppressive provincial government on behalf of the people. Directed by famed, gravity-shunning fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping ("Crouching Tiger" and "The Matrix" both boast his handiwork), it was first released in 1993.
This re-edited 2001 version features souped-up visual and sound effects (the punches still have that slapstick, kung fu flick ring to them, but it's a Dolby 5.1 slapstick ring), and a new score to bring the final product an up-to-date, rock'em-sock'em energy.
But the picture's cheesy Hong Kong charm is still intact as spectacularly, enthusiastically implausible fight scenes take front and center, tent-poled by a story lifted from Chinese legend.
The Iron Monkey is a limber and mysterious hero with Batman's sense of nocturnal theatrics and penchant for gadgets (smoke bombs, shoe-piercing spikes). He comes by night to pinch from the coffers of greedy officials and play footsie-to-the-face with their legions of guards in dozens-on-one showdowns that make you cheer at their complexity and laugh at their deliberate touches of whimsy. This is an action movie in which the good guy balances on the head of one opponent while kicking the butts of several others.
By day the Iron Monkey (Yu Rong Guang) is a benevolent doctor named Yang. He treats the poor for free with the help of a pretty young assistant (Jean Wang) who can fight with the best of them when the occasion calls for it.
This people's-champion vigilante soon becomes such a nuisance to the comically crooked governor that, in a scene played for laughs, he has everyone who could conceivably be the Iron Monkey rounded up. A street performer doing back-flips is arrested. So is a beggar scratching himself on the head in monkey fashion.
Caught in the dragnet is Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen), a kung fu master whose services the governor extorts by way of holding his son hostage until the Iron Monkey is captured.
When the boy (Sze-Man Tsang) falls ill, Dr. Yang secures his release under the auspices of medical treatment. Then Yang and Wong join forces to defeat the governor and a ruthless royal minister who has come from the capital to oversee the pursuit of the Iron Monkey.
As good as "Crouching Tiger," but without the austere elegance, this movie is pure, unadulterated fun -- and when it comes to the crowd-drawing fight sequences, "Iron Monkey" boasts some of the best ever filmed.
Yuen Wo-Ping pays homage to Charlie Chaplain in the first fight featuring Wong and his son fending off a dozen villagers with an umbrella. Twelve-year-old Tsang (whose character grows up to be the legendary hero of both Jet Li's "Once Upon A Time In China" films and Jackie Chan's "The Legend of Drunken Master") is an even more astonishing combatant than teenage Zhang Ziyi was in "Crouching Tiger," and is the centerpiece of his own eye-popping fight later in the film.
Eventually everyone gets into the act when the Iron Monkey, the girl and the Wongs team up against the sinister royal minister and his gadgety smock with unintentionally humorous flying sleeves that kill people.
The awesome climactic showdown finds the Iron Monkey and Master Wong fighting the minister for their lives while all are balanced atop a field of wooden pillars -- which are on fire and liable to collapse at any moment. I guarantee you've never seen anything like it.