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(1993/2001) (Yu Ruang-Guang, Donnie Yen) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: Various forces try to apprehend a masked vigilante who robs the corrupt government and distributes food and money to the poor.
It's the mid 19th century in China's Zhejing province and Governor Cheng (JAMES WONG), the corrupt ruler of the land, has hoarded food from the masses. In response, a masked vigilante known as the Iron Monkey has become a folk hero by robbing the government and distributing food and money to the poor.

This infuriates Cheng who orders his constable, Chief Fox (YUEN SHUN-YEE), to apprehend or at least unmask the intruder who's highly proficient with martial arts. Fox, his forces and even some mercenary Shaolin monks try, but are unsuccessful at doing just that.

Among those amused by Cheng and Fox's attempts are Dr. Yang (YU RUANG-GUANG) and his assistant, Miss Orchid (JEAN WANG), who run the local clinic and treat the poor for free. They become concerned, however, when Cheng - upon hearing of the imminent arrival of the Royal Minister - orders that anyone who might be the Iron Monkey be arrested.

Among them are Wong Kei-Ying (DONNIE YEN) and his young son, Wong Fei-Hong (TSANG SZE-MAN) who are on their way home. The Iron Monkey exonerates everyone by showing up while they're all incarcerated, but Cheng is so impressed by Kei-Ying's martial arts skills that he holds Fei-Hong hostage until his father can capture or kill the Iron Monkey.

Yet, Kei-Ying soon realizes he's working on the wrong side of the law as no one save for Dr. Yang and Miss Orchid will help him as everyone views the Iron Monkey as their hero. From that point on, Kei-Ying and others assist the Iron Monkey in his battle against the corrupt government that includes the arrival of the all powerful and very dangerous Royal Minister (YEN YEE KWAN).

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
It's interesting how certain things are acceptable and/or enjoyable in one context, but not in another. Politically incorrect humor obviously falls into such confines, but pretty much anything else can as well, particularly when it comes to movies.

Certain viewers can accept a given actor or actress in a certain type of role but not another, or gross out humor in some films that they can't accept in other pictures, while others can tolerate unrealistic looking visuals in certain films that they wouldn't in others.

I'm usually that way about martial arts films. While I'm no connoisseur of the pictures and certainly no expert, I like the action in them to be as realistic looking as possible. Although I grew up on the horribly dubbed imports with their sped-up action, I'm not a fan of either unless they arrive in spoof form. Nor am I particularly fond of wire fighting where participants defy the laws of gravity by being lifted into the air by carefully hidden or digitally erased cables.

That was and still is my chief complaint about "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," as such material and movements didn't look or come off as remotely realistic in the otherwise straight-laced romantic drama. When it's used in a fantasy type film ("The Matrix") or purposefully unrealistic action flick ("Charlie's Angels") it's easier to tolerate. That's certainly the case in "Iron Monkey."

An older Hong Kong export - it was initially released in 1993 - the film is no doubt returning to the big screen thanks to the phenomenal success of "Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger," both of which this film's director, Yuen Wo Ping ("Drunken Master," "The Magnificent Butcher"), choreographed.

Loosely based on the legend of the Iron Monkey - described as something of a Chinese Robin Hood - and the real life Wong Fei-Hong who's portrayed here as a child, the film is a spectacular martial arts-laden action experience that may also be quite goofy, but certainly shows how it inspired "Crouching Tiger" in both action and a few random, magical/poignant moments.

That's not meant to imply that this is anything like that Oscar winning picture beyond the martial arts action and gravity-defying wire fighting. Whereas that film was a "serious" romantic drama epic, this one is designed as an action comedy hybrid where one is supposed to sit back, cease all cranial activity, and simply watch, enjoy and often be astounded by the frenetic visual activity.

The plot - written by Tsui Hark, Elsa Tang and Lau Tai Mok - obviously didn't win any Oscars, but its simple and predictable design - there's never any doubt about the Iron Monkey's true identity - allows for the many fight and action sequences to take shape.

I'll admit that it took me a while to get into the flick. After all, I expected it to be yet another over the top and redundant martial arts film that takes itself far too seriously. Yet, as it wore on, the film beat down my defenses to the point where I found myself thoroughly enjoying the mayhem-based entertainment.

As was evident in the two better known films he choreographed, Yuen Wo Ping certainly knows his way around staging fight and action scenes, and this one delivers more than its fare share of them, including a doozy of a finale where two men battle a villain while perched atop poles set in a raging fire on the ground.

The action is intense, the stunt work is impressive, and the overall staging and execution of the material is infectiously entertaining, even when the film isn't remotely realistic, especially from a gravity related perspective. Although the fighting and action aren't as slick and/or graceful as in the director's subsequent choreography-based work - what with the occasionally chopping editing and sped-up film here - it actually fits in better with the sort of story and setting in which it appears.

Despite the goofy comedy -- James Wong ("Visible Secret," "Best of Best") and Yuen Shun Yee ("Drunken Master," "Once Upon a Time In China") serving as a buffoonish governor and police officer respectively - the performances are actually quite strong, although most of that can be attributed to the various performers' screen presence and attitude rather than deeply fleshed out characters.

As the three heroic figures, Yu Ruang-Guang ("Shanghai Noon," "Taxi Hunter"), Donnie Yen ("Fists of Fury," "Once Upon a Time in China II") and Jean Wang (several of the "Once Upon a Time in China" films) are all good and create engaging characters, both in and out of action mode. It's Tsang Sze-Man (marking the only film in which she appeared), however, who's excellent as she portrays the young Wong Fei-Hong and steals every scene in which she convincingly appears as the young but determined boy.

Although I'll admit that it's certainly nothing great from a serious filmmaking perspective, the picture is a great deal of fun to behold and I personally found it more enjoyable - in a pure entertainment sense - than the more serious and stuffy "Crouching Tiger." It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 27, 2001 / Posted October 12, 2001

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