Blu-ray Review: Iron Monkey (1993) -- Ultimate Force of Four Box Set Collection

Part of the New Blu-ray Set

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In a society where hospitals dump the homeless on the street when they can't pay their bill and people fall into massive debt, discrimination, and death due to the health care crisis in America, man, is it refreshing to find a doctor we can cheer for in the form of China's Wong Fei Hung.

By embellishing the biography of the real-life late nineteenth and early twentieth century physician, revolutionary, martial artist, and healer Hung to the stuff of folkloric legend as one of China's most enduring and endearing sources for cinematic inspiration, Hung has lived on long past his death in 1924 through the many actors who have portrayed him on TV and film.

The two most notable takes on the grown up heroic Hung were crafted first by Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master films and later by Jet Li via his epic Once Upon a Time in China series. In fact these two films and the character they share have become so famous in their own right that I'd erroneously believed I'd seen Iron Monkey until I sat down and viewed the Blu-ray in preparation for the review to watch an early take of the very same character (actually played by female actress Tsang Sze-man).

Over the years, the tales about the legendary doctor have become much taller, essentially making Hung the Chinese equivalent of Robin Hood, Dr. Syn, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and any number of American superheroes. As I settled into the movie, my first impression in translating it to action movie geek-speak was that I'd be viewing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as opposed to say, Raiders of the Lost Ark given the fact that our hero is only twelve in this film yet it turned out to be a film that I felt even surpassed Jackie Chan's take on Hung in Drunken Master which suffered from its thin plot and broad humor.

While of course, this isn't a slam on Chan's performance at all since the action choreography in Master is among China's best but as an entire cinematic experience, you just can't duplicate Iron Monkey for both its tremendously swift fight scenes crafted by the now iconic Yuen Wo-Ping (who choreographed Crouching Tiger, The Matrix, and Kill Bill) as well as the film's true beauty.

Naturally, it goes without saying that the action scenes are top-notch given the resume of Ping and his supremely unique style of constant motion plus signature movements that augment the strengths of every actor involved. However, I was also thrilled by Monkey's nice blend of the same poetry that would be enhanced in Ang Lee's Oscar winning Tiger seven years later.

Although I could gush continuously about some of the sequences that left me dazzled, one standout begs to be celebrated as it impressively utilized zero violence as the Robin Hood-like physician Dr. Yang (Yu Rong-quong) and his beautiful assistant employ amazing hidden wire-work and magical technique to catch loose office papers that are flying through the air.

It's an important origin story for Hung by illustrating-- as director Quentin Tarantino acknowledged in a behind-the-scenes extra feature introduction-- the powerful role that both Hung's own hardworking honest father (Donnie Yen) and herbalist Dr. Yang would eventually play in his own mythological storyline we've seen unfold for years onscreen.

Traveling the countryside with his ethical physician father who is also a skilled martial artist in his own right (and brilliantly portrayed by the Donnie Yen in some showstopping scenes), the young Hung is held captive by authorities when they erroneously accuse Yen of being the vigilante known as the Iron Monkey who rights wrongs and steals from the haves to drops coins of gold in the laps of the have-nots. When the true Iron Monkey (crime fighting
herbalist Dr. Yang, of course) arrives in his iconic black mask in court just as the judge was about to throw the book at Hung's father, they eventually let him loose with the condition that his son will only be released when the real Monkey is brought to justice.

However, foreshadowing the talented martial artist and innovator he'd later become, the twelve year old manages to stage his own jailbreak and meets up with his father. Through director Ping's stunning choreography and breakneck pace of the brisk eighty-six minute film that never overstays its welcome, we're as invigorated and inspired as Hung is from not just the visual contact high but given the idea that during our current health care crisis, at last (if only on film) we have a physician whom we can truly celebrate.

And again, by ensuring that the storyline will avoid anachronisms in the onscreen mythology of Wong Fei Hung, it's a treat to see the young man realize that the villain they're after may wear black (just like Zorro), but the Iron Monkey transcends what's black and white by standing up for the helpless and concerning himself with the gray area between what is the law and how much of it is worth breaking to ensure basic human rights among the less fortunate.

Making its way to Blu-ray for the first time now in 2009, Iron Monkey had been previously remastered once before in 2001 to help cash in on the Kung Fu craze that hit our shores after the release of Ping's choreography in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon along with the success of Jackie Chan's Legend of Drunken Master which introduced a larger audience to Wong Fei Hung.

And although some of the original flaws of the theatrical print are still there
including several darkly lit shots that benefit from a few adjustments on your TV, with the full power of 1080 pixels behind it, the refreshingly PG-13 rated Monkey still packs a much bigger punch than big budget Hollywood action flicks routinely clogging up space at our local multiplex. Likewise, the sound balance is perfect and it thankfully includes English subtitles and the foreign audio soundtrack.

As the fourth and final feature of a high caliber Blu-ray set from Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Iron Monkey is no doubt one you'll find yourself viewing perhaps more frequently than the other three immensely stylized yet uniquely different works as the title with the biggest potential appeal across all generations, backgrounds, and of course gender since the little fighter to become a national male hero was played by one tough female Kung Fu cookie.

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