Yuen Woo-Ping’s eight-year old Hong Kong movie “Iron Monkey” doesn’t offer any profound truths about human nature or deep revelations concerning society. What it provides instead is a simple-minded good-versus-evil plot, not unlike an eastern version of “Zorro,” some charmingly naive humor, and–most importantly–stunningly choreographed action sequences that alternately make you laugh with delight and take your breath away. It’s a wonderfully cheesy and exhilarating flick.
The hero is a dedicated young physician (Yu Rong Guang) who dons a mask to fight the corrupt local governor and his minions; the Iron Monkey, as he styles himself, is a master of martial arts, and uses his skill to take from the well-to-do and distribute the proceeds among the needy, though he doesn’t need a band of Merry Men to do so–a single female assistant (Jean Wang), whom he saved from a brutal husband, is sufficient. Having enough of the Monkey’s work, the cartoonish governor enlists a visiting kung-fu fighter (Donnie Yen) to capture the outlaw by holding his son (the cross-dressing Tsang Sze-Man) hostage. After a few bouts, however, all four principals join forces to defeat not only the governor but a wicked royal emissary (Yen Yee Kwan) whose phenomenal fighting skills endanger them all. (The emissary, it might be noted, is a fallen Shaolin priest so villainous that he’d make David Carradine blanch.) For further comic relief there’s also a gubernatorial bodyguard who’s a good guy at heart.
Nothing in “Iron Monkey” is even slightly serious, not least the magnificent martial arts scenes, which are as beautifully staged as those which Yuen Woo-Ping more recently constructed for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” but express a sense of mindless fun rather than one of mystery. But though their purpose is very different, they’re equally astonishing and graceful. The cast shows itself equal to all the physical demands put upon them, and while the thespian requirements don’t go much beyond the Saturday afternoon serial level, they fulfill those admirably, too.
“Iron Monkey” may be mindless, but it isn’t brainless: the script may be patently ridiculous, but the sheer exuberance of the execution makes one forget the absurdity and revel in the craftsmanship. And Miramax is to be congratulated not only for bringing it (with the help, it must be added, of Quentin Tarantino) at long last to American screens, but for resisting the temptation to dub it into English. Let’s face it, the dialogue doesn’t much matter anyway–even kids too young to read the subtitles will have no trouble understanding, and enjoying, what’s going on–and this way we don’t have to deal with crummy English lines that wouldn’t match the movement of the characters’ mouths. So sit back, give up thinking for ninety minutes, and revel in this burst of wonderfully naive Hong Kong nonsense. You’ll be glad you did.