Beautifully restored in 2K, Yuen Woo-ping’s Iron Monkey is finally released on Blu-ray to be enjoyed again or discovered for the first time. This pre-Handover Hong Kong classic boasts a terrific story wrapped within the wildest choreography and martial arts fighting you may ever see.
In the mid-19th century, Ip Man’s Donnie Yen arrives in town as Wong Kei-ying, the father of Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei-hung (Wushu athlete, Angie Tsang). The arrival of Wong Kei-ying and Wong Fei-hung coincides with the search for the mysterious, authority-aggravating, Iron Monkey.
The Iron Monkey is a highly-skilled masked vigilante, who fights with Robin-Hood-esque motivations, and almost resembles Christopher Nolan’s Batman in Batman Begins. Stealing gold from the corrupt officials of the town, the Iron Monkey is a hero worshiped by the poor. On the flip side, the Iron Monkey is the night-time alter-ego of local medicine physician, Yang Tianchan (The Karate Kid’s Yu Rongguang) – giving the medicine away for free to the poor, but charging the rich high prices establishes him as a hero within the poor community.
Having successfully stolen from the residence of Governor Cheng (Twin Dragons’ James Wong), and escaped with ease from the security of Master Fox’s (Yuen Shun-yi) men and Shaolin Monks, the Governor orders Fox to arrest anyone appearing to have connections with the Iron Monkey. Foolish Fox and his men subsequently look to arrest anyone who possesses a high-quality fighting ability. Wong Kei-ying and Wong Fei-hung enter the scene; with the latter causing a ruckus after a thug attempts to pickpocket the former. Fox’s men witness the kerfuffle, thus leading to the arrest of Wong Kei-ying as the Iron Monkey…
Insisting his innocence to the Governor, Wong Kei-ying offers to capture the real Iron Monkey! The Governor accepts this proposal, however, he maintains Wong Fei-hung as a prisoner, only for the child to fall seriously unwell. Fox summons Yang Tianchan – the real Iron Monkey – to care for the child. Whilst Yang Tianchan and his assistant, Miss Orchid (Once Upon a Time in China IV’s Jean Wang) care for Wong Fei-hung, Wong Kei-ying is now public enemy #1, as the villagers adore the Iron Monkey’s heroics, and despise Wong Kei-ying’s mission to hand the Iron Monkey over to the Governor.
The Governor wants society fully under his control with no Iron Monkey, ready for a visit by the deadly imperial official, Hin Hung (Five Fingers of Death‘s Yen Shi-kwan). Will Wong Kei-ying capture the Iron Monkey? Will Wong Kei-ying realise that the Iron Monkey is treating his sick son?! Will the Governor maintain his corruption? What does Hin Hung entail?
Firstly, the martial arts displayed in Iron Monkey are of such a high quality, it is a hard task to describe such skill with superlatives. Fighting aside, the acting is generally good, but not great throughout – the poor dubbing is at fault for a proportion of this. Back to the fighting, the usage of wires – known as Wire fu – helps elevate the fighting displays of Iron Monkey’s main characters, though the theatrics resulted from wiring add frequent comedic elements. Unclear as to whether the comedic elements were deliberate, the theatrics presented on screen establish an unparalleled spectacle and stunt tour de force. Though for a film containing so much violence, it is a minor surprise that Iron Monkey possesses a 12 certificate. Though a lot of said violence can be excessive in a comedic nature, there are instances of gory bodily damage and attempted rape.
Onto its characters, one of Iron Monkey’s slight issues is that it is not consistently clear as to who the central character is – sometimes it is Wong Kei-ying, sometimes it is the Iron Monkey, and then they are sometimes centralised together. Donnie Yen is the clear star of Iron Monkey, despite not being the titular character and occasionally disappearing from the story.
Iron Monkey’s portrayal of Wong Fei-hung, despite its greatness, is not the only or first fictional representation of the folk hero. Two years prior, starring Jet Li as Wong Fei-hung, Once Upon a Time in China launched a six-film series released between the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema (1986-93) and the Handover of Hong Kong (1997). Iron Monkey and Once Upon a Time in China share a parallel other than its portrayal of Wong Fei-hung: Tsui Hark (Double Team), who wrote both films, but directed the latter and some of its sequels.
The actual showpiece aside, the Blu-ray release of Iron Monkey boasts over two hours of bonus content. From 20-something-minute interviews with the likes of Donnie Yen and Tsui Hark to a featurette on shadow boxing, and the original trailer of Iron Monkey, plenty of bonus content is available for your viewing pleasure. The only criticism, however, is that the interviews with Donnie Yen and Tsui Hark look to from previous home video releases of Iron Monkey, therefore said interviews may seem a little outdated or very recognisable.
Ultimately, one major aspect needs to be remembered: this is a 2K restoration. Is this 2k restoration of Iron Monkey noticeably different? Yes, yes, yes. This 2K restoration beautifully evolves a masterful artwork into a more modern-looking spectacle, leading to a warmer embrace and greater appreciation of a true Hong Kong classic. The Blu-ray release of Iron Monkey may have been long overdue, but now, the wildest and best-choreographed fighting of the last 25 years is now available for fans old and new to live in awe in.
Iron Monkey is now available on DVD & Bluray from Eureka Video.