Iron Monkey is a deliriously compact stew of many of the qualities that made film buffs go berserk over Hong Kong cinema in the early 1990s. It's funny, heroic, exaggerated, and most of all energetic; the film speeds along as though afraid to lose the audience's attention for even a moment.
Set in Zhejiang Province in 1858, the film is essentially Robin Hood and Zorro Meet Young Wong Fei-Hong at the Shaolin Temple. When a greedy governor (James Wong) exploits the starving citizens of his region, a masked hero emerges to save the day. Known as the Iron Monkey, he skips and flies over rooftops at night, eluding both the police and a mercenary band of corrupt Shaolin monks in order to redistribute the governor's wealth among the people. Chief Constable Fox (Sunny Yuen Shun-Yee, one of the director's several performing siblings) confides his frustration over Iron Monkey to the only man in town who couldn't possibly be the masked avenger -- gentle, fearful Dr. Yang (Yu Rong-Guang). Of course the meek exterior is a put-on, his Clark Kent façade; we know from the very beginning that Dr. Yang is Iron Monkey.
After one of Iron Monkey's most daring capers, the essentially goodhearted Fox is ordered to round up every possible suspect -- anybody who looks like a monkey, whose name sounds like monkey; he even arrests an actual monkey. Among the innocents pulled in for torture and questioning are Cantonese visitors Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) and his ten-year-old son, Wong Fei-Hong, played by Tsang Sze-Man, an extraordinary little female wushu champ. (Wong Fei-Hong will grow up to be the hero of the Drunken Master and Once upon a Time in China films.) When the real Iron Monkey shows up at the inquisition, the governor has to release most of the suspects, but having witnessed Wong Kei-Ying's fighting prowess, he decides to hold Fei-Hong hostage until Kei-Ying captures his nemesis.
More plot complications, both tragic and farcical, occur: As Hong Kong kick fests go, Iron Monkey has a pretty tight script, cowritten (with Elsa Tang and Lau Tai-Muk) by the film's producer, Tsui Hark, who had a hand in at least half of the best films to emerge from Hong Kong during that period, among them the first three installments in the Once upon a Time in China series and the first two A Better Tomorrow films. But plot is never central in these films; the real action is the action, and it's hard to imagine a greater bunch of fight sequences than those collected in Iron Monkey -- from the amazing comical choreography of young Wong Fei-Hong fending off attackers with his father's umbrella to the simply extraordinary ten-minute action finale, the last half of which involves the elder Wong, Dr. Yang, and the arch villain (Yan Yee-Kwan) doing unbelievable acrobatics... atop a bunch of narrow wooden poles... that are on fire.
The best thing about this reissue: There is no inept English dubbing, which has done more to set back the cause of Hong Kong action cinema in America than all other factors put together. Even decent dubbing, as in Miramax's The Legend of Drunken Master last year, is unnecessary and causes problems. If Crouching Tiger's huge success proved anything, it's that people will flock to see good films, subtitled or not. It's obvious that Iron Monkey, while lacking the grand romance of Ang Lee's megahit, is one of the key works that persuaded Lee to hire Yuen for the action sequences in Crouching Tiger. And no one who thrilled to the sight of Michelle Yeoh skipping across rooftops and running up walls in pursuit of Zhang Ziyi is likely to be disappointed by what he or she sees here.