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Blu-ray Review: Iron Monkey

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Yuen Woo Ping was introduced to American audiences by his marvelous work with a group non-martial artists in The Matrix. Besides being a game-changing film on a technical and narrative level, it also featured a series of exhilarating martial arts battles. Ping was the man behind those eye-popping fights, and again, he was working with non-martial artists for the most part. He then went on to work on such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, Unleashed, and Forbidden Kingdom. However, what many non-genre fans know is that he has had a long and illustrious career not only as a martial arts director but as a film director (not to mention a long list of on-screen appearances). One of his most beloved films was released way back in 1993 and went by the name of Iron Monkey.

Kung fu fans likely know all about this movie and don't need to listen to me sing its praises (just go get your hands on this Blu-ray!). However, if you are a newcomer, curious, or somehow otherwise interested in the world of kung fu films, come along as I take a look at this classic.

First off, this is a must have for your collection and secondly, it is a great way to get introduced to the talents of Donnie Yen who, like Jet Li, is a Wu Shu master and national champion. Yen has also appeared in Hollywood productions, most notably Blade II and Shanghai Knights, the latter alongside Jackie Chan.

Iron Monkey is set in Chekiang province in the late 1850s. It was a time of civil unrest — peasants fled the warlord-ravaged countryside for towns and cities, seeking shelter and food. What they found was an even nastier group of people, greedy merchants who would take them for all they had and a government riddled with corruption. This sets the perfect stage for a hero to rise up to help the poor folk and take back from the rich. In short, this is a classic Robin Hood tale. In this setting Robin Hood is known as Iron Monkey.

The movie opens with the top ranking official of Chekiang having some of his wealth stolen by Iron Monkey after an exhilarating fight with some of the guards. From here, we see some of the corruption in action before moving to the local doctor's office. We are introduced to Dr. Yang (Rongguang Yu, who appeared in Shanghai Noon) and his assistant, Lady Orchid (Jean Wang). We watch the good doctor work and it becomes plainly apparent that he is more than he appears to be. In fact, he is the Iron Monkey, hiding in plain sight.

The Governor is becoming increasingly paranoid over the Iron Monkey attacks and will stop at nothing to capture the "villain." This leads to mass arrests. One of those arrested is a visiting Wong Kei Ying (Donnie Yen) and his son Wong Fei Hung (Tsang Sze-Man, a young girl and accomplished martial artist).

Desperate to get out of town, he agrees to stay in town to capture the Iron Monkey. The governor accepts his proposition, but holds Wong Fei Hung as collateral. From here, we are privy to a succession of elaborate fight sequences and revelations as we build towards the finale.

The story is a simple one. It is easy to follow, does not offer up much in the way of surprises, but is intriguing nonetheless. It brings together drama, big action, and broad comedy all under one roof, giving the viewer a complete experience. The pace is brisk — you are never that far away from an action sequence and they are beautifully choreographed.

While Iron Monkey offers some interesting characters, the centerpiece is the fights. There is not a bad one in the bunch. Whether it is Donnie Yen against a group of thugs, Shaolin monks, or the Iron Monkey, you are assured fast and furious action. Likewise, Rongguang Yu delivers some first rate battles. Even the child gets involved, delivering a fight/chase in the streets, and a fight armed with a bamboo staff. These fights are not the most realistic — the film is tinged with common fantasy elements, such as flying fighters, there are also some technical cheats like sped up film. Still, these do nothing to take away from the action, plus the staging is great. It is wonderful to see a fight sequence where you can actually tell what is going on.

Audio/Video. The video is presented in its original widescreen format of 1.85:1. It is not the greatest Blu-ray I have seen, but it is a significant step up from the DVD. There is much detail to be seen throughout. Overall, it is a little to the soft side, and I noticed what appears to be some print damage in the form of spots, but these issues are terribly minor and do nothing to to distract from the overall positive experience.

The audio is presented in a few formats: English DTS-HD 5.1, Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1, and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0. I sampled both the English and Cantonese tracks, they are both quite good. I think the English dub is a bit more fully rounded, despite being a dub (it is all right, but original languages are always preferable). The Cantonese track helps the performances, hearing the actual actors' voices, but it is a little sharper sounding and not quite as pleasing overall. Neither track is terribly active, but it just is not that kind of movie, everything is centered to the front. Still, neither track disappoints. I'd recommend watching it with both.

Extras. There is not much here, actually, it appears they were just carried over from the DVD. They are not presented in HD. First there is Quentin Tarantino who talks of his love for kung fu movies and includes a great description of the genre and its place in the culture. The other interview is with star Donnie Yen, who talks of how he came to be in the entertainment industry.

Bottom line. Like I have said, this is a must have. The disk looks great, and the movie is a classic. Simple but interesting story, with some big laughs, and over the top action. What else is there to say?

Highly Recommended.

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