Memo to all the hardcore Hong Kong film purists who were grumpy about the huge success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (and you know who you are): Get over it. I know, I know, you were eating bags of dried squid in Chinatown movie theaters back when no non-Asian person had ever heard of Jackie Chan or John Woo. You've been holed up in your cavelike apartment for years, watching grainy fifth-generation copies of "Wolf Devil Woman" and "Spooky Family 2." (Believe me, I've been there.) It can't be easy hearing mainstream TV commentators and your office-drone co-workers burble on about how cool Hong Kong movies are, based mostly on seeing "The Matrix," "M:I 2" and "Rush Hour."
But you know what? "Crouching Tiger" really was a marvelous film, close to a masterpiece, and if it opens American eyes by the millions to Hong Kong's classic entertainments, I say bring 'em on. OK, it's a little weird that the first film to benefit from this turn of events is "Iron Monkey," a relatively obscure actioner with no stars recognizable to U.S. viewers that was actually released in 1993 and has been available on DVD for several years. If you insist on being grouchy about this delightful combination of vaudevillian comedy and high-flying kung fu, however, you may be a traitor to Shaolin and I may have to kick your ass while chanting: Rod That Sweeps Away Injustice! Strong Wind Blowing From North to South! Fiery Breath of the Ungulate! (I made that last one up, I think.)
If "Crouching Tiger" was to a large extent a lovingly crafted art film topped with martial-arts action, "Iron Monkey" is a commercial spectacular, maybe closer in tone to the "Lethal Weapon" series than to anything else in the Hollywood tradition. One dazzling fight scene follows another, right up to the justly famous climax in which Dr. Yang (Yu Rong-guang), a rural Robin Hood type known as the Iron Monkey, and his friend Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen) battle an evil Shaolin monk turned royal minister (Yen Yee-kwan) atop a forest of burning wooden poles.
Just enough Chinese history and legend is thrown in to keep the story moving, which points to one of the major differences between Hong Kong cinema and our own. Producer and co-writer Tsui Hark, one of the field's true creative titans, saw "Iron Monkey" partly as a prequel to his "Once Upon a Time in China" series, which starred Jet Li as the semi-historical Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei-hong. Wong, who has also been played by Jackie Chan, Kwan Tak-hing and any number of other actors over the years, appears in "Iron Monkey" as a small boy (played by a girl, the remarkable martial-arts performer Tsang Sze-man). It's almost as if Daniel Boone or Paul Revere, rather than being tiresome figures in history books, were Hollywood's biggest action heroes.
Miramax has made certain changes to "Iron Monkey" for Western release that may seem controversial to hardcore fans, but surely to no one else. Not only has nothing essential been compromised, but the film seems crisper, cleaner and better organized than I remember. Some of the fight sequences have been edited under the supervision of director Yuen Wo-ping (action choreographer of both "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger"), new English subtitles have been added and a new soundtrack, including a Western-style score by James L. Venable, has been recorded.
As a director, Yuen has none of the arty tendencies of Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger") or Wong Kar-wai ("In the Mood for Love"). He wastes little time on atmosphere or scenery and prefers his characters in motion, whether sailing from rooftop to rooftop, bouncing across the heads of corrupt monks, performing amazing gymnastics with an umbrella or careening off each other in finely honed buffoonery.
When we first meet Dr. Yang, the Iron Monkey himself, he's executing a daring burglary, stealing the cashbox of the corrupt governor of Chekiang (James Wong) and doling out the cash to the city's poor. This kind of evil bureaucrat is a stock figure in Chinese film, often played as a dunderhead whose greed and pomposity barely mask his fearful nature. The governor is enraged when a monkey flashes its butt at him, terrorized when the lightning-quick Yang shaves off one of his eyebrows and easily duped when Yang and his lover Miss Orchid (Jean Wang) impersonate imperial officials with outrageously fake beards.
If the governor, the swaggering royal minister and the well-meaning but incompetent constable Chief Fox (Yuen Shun-yee, brother of the director) are hambone vaudeville types, Dr. Yang and his fellow warrior-physician Wong Kei-ying are heroes bigger than life, whose integrity and honor are beyond question. They begin as adversaries -- since the governor has imprisoned Wong's son (i.e., the young Wong Fei-hong) and demanded that he capture or kill the Iron Monkey -- but inevitably join forces to put the province to rights.
Neither Yu, a balletic performer trained in the Beijing opera tradition, nor Donnie Yen, a major star in wushu-style martial arts, is well known outside the Far East, but this release of "Iron Monkey" ought to change that. (Yen presumably speaks English, since he spent his teen years in Boston.) Both are strikingly handsome; Yu is a gracious, almost aristocratic presence, while Yen has the dark-eyed, introspective manner of a self-contained and self-made man.
Maybe the film's real star, however, is Yuen's mind-blowing fight choreography, reportedly a blend of traditional kung-fu styles and stunts of his own invention. (Like most Western viewers, I wouldn't know the difference.) One could argue that "Iron Monkey," enjoyable as it is, isn't even in the top 10 percent of Hong Kong action films. (If you're new to this stuff, check out Tsui Hark's outlandish "Chinese Ghost Story" series, or his 1983 fantasy classic "Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain," to be rereleased next year as "Zu Warriors.") But taken strictly as a martial-arts genre film, "Iron Monkey" has few peers in terms of its derring-do, its visual variety and its economy; by contrast, the legendary "Once Upon a Time in China" feels too long by half.
Whether your favorite scene is Wong Fei-hong vanquishing an entire courtyard full of bullies, the evil Shaolin monk's use of the poisonous "Buddha's Palm" maneuver or Miss Orchid, drugged with sleeping powder, fighting off four would-be rapists, "Iron Monkey" is a guilt-free, no-fat dessert from start to finish. As Dr. Yang himself tells a group of corrupt officials while kicking their hineys (in the sometimes fractured English of the subtitles, which has been affectionately preserved), "You can't best the righteous."