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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/39/02

Iron Monkey
1993 (2002) - Dimension Films (Buena Vista)

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Iron Monkey

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/C+

Specs and Features

85 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, Quentin Tarantino interview, Donnie Yen Interview, score medley, bonus trailers, film-themed menu screens, scene access (18 chapters), languages: Chinese and English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Iron Monkey is such a satisfying piece of action cinema that I watched the whole thing from start to finish twice in a row! I was so blown away by its unabashed affinity for no-nonsense, over-the-top, rousing martial arts (choreography by Yuen Wo Ping), that one viewing wasn't enough. Yuen Wo Ping is famed on this side of the river for his work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix, but he's been doing flicks like these in Hong Kong for a long while now. If you liked what you saw in those movies, you're bound to find something worthwhile in Iron Monkey. Or if you're new to the genre and want to know where to begin, this would be a good starting point.

You want story? Go watch Dangerous Liaisons or something else instead. You're not going to get a whole lot of it here, and that's just fine for a movie like this. There's enough narrative to carry the film from beginning to end, but in all honesty, it's only window dressing for some really out of this world martial arts indulgence. It's a standard kung fu story, based partly on the Robin Hood-like legend of young Wong Fei-Hung (Sze-Man Tsang). Dr. Yang (Rongguang Yu) is a kind healer for a small community by day. But by night, he is the Iron Monkey, defending the innocent town's people from the greedy grasp of Governor Chang (James Wong). Along come Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) and his son, Wong Fei-Hung, forced by the Governor to sniff out and exterminate the Iron Monkey for his wrongdoings against the government.

Obviously, the film's centerpiece is its martial arts sequences. The last scene of the film is particularly impressive. Nothing in Yuen Woo Ping's previous films can compare to the sight of three men battling it out atop a series of ten-foot stilts with a fire blazing below them. They whisk through the air, free from the confines of gravity thanks to the assistance of some swell wire-fu action. Another incredible sequence shows young Wong Fei-Hung taking on a legion of grown men by using anything he can find laying around (an open umbrella and a wooden table, for example) as fight props. It's reminiscent of some of the work in Jackie Chan's films that is done so effortlessly it looks like it's improvised. Iron Monkey looks a lot like a comic strip. Many of the camera angles are skewed and off center, and its fast-paced editing style lends itself to quick close-ups that flash on screen just long enough for you to glimpse an open fist making contact with a surprised face. These are the kinds of scenes where you would expect to see a classic Batman-style dialogue bubble with the words "BAM," "POW" or "THWAP" appear above the characters.

American cinema has probably never seen an action film as potent as this 85-minute gem. It's rock solid entertainment from start to finish, and it'll make you laugh as much as it'll take your breath away. The pure talent and physical skill of the actors alone is enough to keep Kung Fu fans satisfied, but combine that with the excellent choreography and direction, and you've got one knockout of a film. Iron Monkey is escapism at its best.

Buena Vista has been on a winning streak lately with their video and audio transfers, and this one continues that recent trend. The anamorphic transfer is very good and retains a crisp, theatrical appearance. Color reproduction is brilliant and produces warm, natural flesh tones and precise color contrast. Black levels and shadow detailing are also a strong point. All this is culled from a new source print that exhibits no signs of age-related wear and tear. You may notice some digital artifacts in some of the film's darker scenes that cloud the picture just the slightest bit, but otherwise you shouldn't find anything to complain about.

The Chinese Dolby Digital 5.1 track, while not exceedingly active, is certainly a bang up soundtrack to get you into the swing of things. The aforementioned sonic BAMs, POWs and THWAPs are front and center in the sound field. Surround usage is reserved almost solely for the newly created musical score. It sounds full and vibrant, and the .1 LFE channel adds a nice kick to the fight scenes. My only reservation about that track is that I would have liked more in the sound effects department from the split surrounds. They're spread nicely across the front channels, but I didn't hear a whole lot of action from the rear channels. There's also an English dubbed track, but you're doing nobody a favor if you choose it over the original Chinese track.

On the extras side, there are a few pieces to complement the film. First up is a 9-minute interview with Quentin Tarantino (sounding rather hoarse), where he does a quick dissection of modern martial arts cinema. It's apparent when listening to him speak that he has an affinity for these films, as he's able to speak in depth about some of the masters of the form. It's worth a listen to see how he came to appreciate these films. There's also a short interview with star Donnie Yen. It's a short piece, but he has an undeniable knowledge of and appreciation for the medium that comes across even through the brevity of the 6-minute segment. It's also worth a look just to see what he looks like with a full head of hair. The score medley is nice, but if you want to highlight the music, why not just provide a separate music only track? The disc is topped off with a handful of trailers for other martial arts titles in the Buena Vista catalogue. That should do you just fine for a standard release DVD.

The new Buena Vista release of Iron Monkey is, all in all, a worthy presentation of a modern genre classic that should make it accessible to mainstream audiences. The disc itself is fairly light on features, but the movie speaks for itself. Quentin Tarantino did cinephiles a big favor by releasing this film in the States. The Kung Fu picture has definitely made a comeback, and Iron Monkey is one of the better examples of the form. It indulges itself firmly in its excesses and never takes itself seriously... and is all the better for it. If you've seen the film and love it, this is a must-buy. If not, give it a go. You may be surprised at how much you'll enjoy it.

Dan Kelly

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