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Almost a Chinese take on the Zorro mythos, Yuen Woo-Ping's 1993 effort Iron Monkey, produced by Tsui Hark, was one of a few collaborations with Donnie Yen and a film that help Yen climb to the top of the martial arts ladder both at home and abroad. And for good reason, as the film is ridiculously entertaining and a whole lot of fun from start to finish.
Set in the 19th century in a town where government corruption runs rampant we meet a young Wong Fei-Hong (Sze-Man Tsang) who travels with his father, Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen). Having recently arrived in town they soon find themselves in hot water. You see, there's one mysterious masked man known only as the Iron Monkey (Yu Rong-Guang) who dares to stand up to the government and obviously the powers that be want him stopped as he's a constant thorn in their side. Taking advantage of the impoverished locals, the government offers up a reward for help in his capture but it's to no avail - the locals love Iron Monkey because he fights for them. The government suspects that the town's new arrival may actually be Iron Monkey, but this is soon proven to not be the case. When word gets out that Wong Kei-Ying is a master fighter, the government officials decide they can force him into fighting for them against Iron Monkey by kidnapping his son.
Initially, Wong Kei-Ying doesn't really have much of a choice but to oblige. The more Wong Kei-Ying learns about his opponent and his assistant, Miss Orchid (Jean Wang), however, the more he grows to appreciate what he's doing and what he stands for and eventually the pair decide to work together to free Wong Fei-Hong from his captors and save the proverbial day as it all leads up to the inevitable showdown with the sinister men in charge (James Wong and Hiu HIng)...
At approximately eighty-five minutes in length, Iron Monkey doesn't waste any time. It's a pretty lean film and while it definitely borrows from pictures like the various Zorro and Robin Hood films made over the years, it does so with a unique cultural slant that makes the somewhat predictable material storyline feel a little fresher than it might have otherwise. Focused around a series of fantastic fight scenes, all done without the aid of computer effects, the film moves at a great pace and contains enough action, comedy and intrigue to really fire on all cylinders. It may not have the epic scope of the Once Upon A Time In China series and it might not be as uproariously funny as Jackie Chan's Drunken Master films but it does manage to find a nice balance and fit perfectly in between the two better known takes on the Wong Fei-Hong folk stories that have been popular throughout the history of Chinese cinema (and obviously this is a different take on Wong Fei-Hong, presenting his early years rather than his adult years).
Yu Rong-Guang and Donnie Yen are both excellent in their roles while the underrated Jean Wang gets at least one scene stealing chance to duke it out with the boys and Yuen Woo-Ping's choreography and directing efforts ensure that the camera captures all of their considerable skills with style. The fights here have an impact that a lot of more recent martial arts fare lacks - the hits and the punches feel like they hurt, and there's just a more intense sense of realism at play that definitely works in the picture's favor. You could argue against the film and easily claim that the story is really only there to string the set pieces together, but there is some decent character development here, particularly on the part of Yen's character, that lets the talent actually act as well as beat the snot out of one another.
While Iron Monkey might do reinvent the wheel or try anything all that new within the confines of the martial arts genre, it doesn't matter - the film is exciting, tense, and very well made and the conclusion is a highpoint in the career's of both Donnie Yen and Yuen Woo-Ping. It's not particularly realistic or original but what's more important is that it's entirely enjoyable and a whole lot of fun.
Miramax presents Iron Monkey in a 1080p AVC encoded 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the film's original aspect ratio and which, for the most part, looks fairly decent even if it is uneven in spots and suffers from some periodic noise. Close up shots tend to show the most detail, with some of the medium and far away shots looking a little soft. Still, this is an improvement over the region 1 DVD in pretty much every way you'd expect it to be - better color reproduction, stronger black levels and a crisper, sharper image - even if it is far from the best Blu-ray has to offer in terms of visuals. Skin tones look pretty decent, though some shots are definitely softer and flatter looking than others resulting in a bit of a patchwork effect that makes the film look a little erratic. The image isn't bad, and fans of the film will probably be fine with it, but this won't be the disc you use to show off your new HDTV the next time your friends are over.
As it was with the recent Miramax release of Zatoichi so it is with Iron Monkey -the only 48kHz DTS-HD 5.1 track included here is the vastly inferior English dub. The original Chinese language track is included but only by way of a standard definition Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track - again, this is definitely a strike against the release for those of us who prefer to watch the film in its original language. If you're okay with the dubbing the track here isn't bad as there's some nice clarity and some great directional effects to enjoy. The levels sound good, the dialogue is easy to understand and bass response is pretty strong, but yeah, it would have been nice to have the Chinese language track included. An alternate Spanish language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is on board as are optional subtitles in English, Spanish and Arabic.
The extras that were found on Miramax's Region 1 DVD release are found on this Blu-ray release as well, though they're all presented in standard definition and there really aren't very many of them. The first extra is Quentin Tarantino Speaks which is a nine and a half minute segment in which Mr.-Yappy-Pants talks about cultural differences between U.S. and Chinese audiences and how sometimes the film's he shows at the Alamo Drafthouse result in internet hubbub which in turn leads to lots of people wanting to see these movies. Apparently Iron Monkey is one such movie. At any rate, Quentin says 'all right' far too often but does manage to offer up a few interesting bits and pieces about the Yuen Clan and martial arts films in general. More interesting is the six minute Donny Yen interview where the star of Iron Monkey talks about how he got his start in the martial arts films, what it's like working with Yuen Woo-ping and what it was like working on this film in particular.
Trailers/promos for a few other Miramax releases play before you get to the animated menu screen. Chapter stops are also included.
Despite the lack of an uncompressed Chinese language option, the Blu-ray release of Iron Monkey is worth a look. The transfer isn't a stunner but it's a pretty decent effort even with some rough spots and the film itself is just as much fun now as it's ever been. Featuring some magnificent fight choreography and a great performance from Donnie Yen, it's hard not to recommend this disc.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.