I think it’s safe to say that the only reason the 1993 Hong Kong martial-arts flick Iron Monkey is getting a U.S. release now is because of the enormous success last year of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Which is too bad, because it makes one wonder how many other terrific foreign films we’re not getting to see simply because American audiences haven’t had the road to acceptance pre-paved for them by a blockbuster of similar type. Of course, we already knew there are tons of incredible movies we never see, but this highlights and underlines the ridiculousness of that fact.
The situation is particularly silly when it comes to Iron Monkey, because there’s nothing “foreign” in the least about it — the masses at the multiplex don’t need any softening up to enjoy this one. Sure, it’s in Chinese, subtitled in English, and lots of moviegoers don’t want to read movies, but this movie kicks ass in exactly the way that 15-year-old boys love. This is a kung-fu flick, with amazing bits of fighting, of course, but it also kicks ass in that figurative sense: it’s fast and funny and elegant; it has a mythic sweep and a breezy, sophisticated graphic-novel sensibility, with its antiauthoritarian hero who can be the rebel while still claiming the moral high ground because the authorities around him are all immoral jerks who so richly deserve the comeuppance they’re about to get. The Iron Monkey — a sort of 19th-century Chinese Batman and Superman rolled into one — is the kind of character little kids on the playground fancy themselves as while they’re jumping off the (heh heh) monkey bars, the kind of character you never quite grow out of wanting to emulate.
In a city where poor, desperate peasants are taken advantage of by greedy merchants and corrupt bureaucrats, the Iron Monkey swoops around by night, playing Robin Hood, ensuring that the people have enough to eat and their masters get smacked on the nose. He’s supercool cloaked and traveling by rooftop at night, and he does good deeds in the guise of his secret identity by day, too: Dr. Yang (Rongguang Yu), tall, handsome, and kindly, sees to the well-being of everyone who visits his clinic, whether they can pay or not. Plus, he has a gorgeous assistant, Orchid Ho (Jean Wang) — his clearly affectionate relationship with her is left tantalizingly shadowy. Are they lovers? Is it a mentor/mentee thing? Is he an avuncular protector? Inquiring minds and all that.
The greedy and ambitious local governor, Cheng (James Wong), afraid that the Iron Monkey’s monkey business will hurt his chances for promotion, blackmails visiting martial-arts expert Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) into catching the Iron Monkey by holding hostage Wong’s young son, Fei-Hong (Sze-Man Tsang). The exploits of the adult Wong Fei-Hong made Jet Li a superstar and the Once Upon a Time in China films big hits, and the pint-sized Fei-Hong gets in on the action, but his dad and the Iron Monkey are the stars here. And they get to indulge in some of that physics-defying martial-arts combat that you’d think we’d have had enough of, after Crouching Tiger and The Matrix, but no: It’s still breathtaking, exquisitely graceful and enormously clever at the same time. (My favorite scene, though, may not be a fight but the simple yet stunning moment in which Orchid uses her fighting skills to fly around Yang’s clinic, retrieving papers that a breeze has tossed around.)
It’s got cool fighting and corrupt officials getting satirized and beaten up. It’s got good-looking guys and a beautiful girl. It’s got a kid fighting a refrigerator-sized grownup. How could anyone not love Iron Monkey, whatever language it’s in?