A classy piece of traditional martial arts, Iron Monkey was one of the best films made during the genre's revival in the early ’90s. It doesn't quite have the epic sweep of Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China films (Hark produced and co-wrote this one too), but the combination of warm humour and electrifying action is a winning one.
Rongguang Yu plays Dr Yang, a friendly, resourceful man of medicine who dishes out free treatment to the poor, whilst charging top whack to those who can afford it. By night Dr Yang becomes Iron Monkey, a kind of Cantonese Batman, dishing out rough justice to those who mistreat the poor and needy, primarily the royal guards of evil Governor Cheng (James Wong). When renowned fighter Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) comes to town, he and his 12-year-old son Wong Fei-Hung (Tsang Sze-Man, actually a girl) are arrested by Governor Cheng. Kei-Ying is only released on the condition that his son remains in jail until he has captured Iron Monkey.
Wong Fei-Hung is the Robin Hood-esque defender of the ordinary man so popular in Chinese legend – this was Jet Li's character in the Once Upon a Time in China films, and it is his life as a youngster with which Iron Monkey partly concerns itself. His father is shown to be a strict disciplinarian, making his son constantly train and recite proverbs, believing normal 12-year-old behaviour to be beneath him. In Dr Yang, Fei-Hung finds a much more kindly father figure, and he works out Yang's identity as Iron Monkey long before his dad does. Tsang Sze-man proves to be as good at kung fu as she is at pretending to be a boy, and her fight scenes are as impressive as much of the 'adult' combat.
Still, it's Rongguang Yu and especially the great Donnie Yen who provides the chief reason for watching. Director Yuen Woo-ping is now best known for his fight choreography on the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix, but Iron Monkey was his 18th film as director, and the action sequences here remain as exciting as anything he's worked on since. Many of them use the extravagant wire-work witnessed in Crouching Tiger, allowing Yen, Yu and their adversaries to spin and glide through the air with the smallest of effort. There's some good swordplay sequences, and just as Once Upon a Time in China climaxed with an astonishing Woo-ping directed fight in a room of ladders, so Iron Monkey ends with Yen, Yu and evil monk Yee Kwan Yan battling it out on a series of upturned wooden poles in a burning room, the sequence getting increasingly fraught as more and more poles disappear into the flames.
The plotting remains simplistic and as is often the case, the Eastern mix of melodrama and broad comedy can seem a little strange to Western eyes. But there are a number of subtley played non-action scenes which do broaden the emotional scope, such as a cooking session between Kei-Ying, Dr Yang and Yang's assistant Miss Orchid (Jean Wang), while the seemingly platonic relationship that the doctor has with Miss Orchid is nicely ambiguous. Followed by a very average sequel in 1996, once again directed by Woo-ping and starring Donnie Yen, but related to this film in name only.
Chinese director whose skill at staging electrifying martial arts has made him one of the most sought after fight choreographers in the world. Woo-ping made his directing debut in 1978 with the Jackie Chan vehicle Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, following it the same year with Chan's hugely popular Drunken Master. His brand of fast-moving martial arts direction was a breath of fresh air compared to the more staid style of many of his peers and until the mid-90s turned in pretty much a film every year, sometimes two or three, including Tiger Cage, Jet Li's Tai-Chi Master and Iron Monkey.