The trailers for this film are a masterpiece of deception — mostly by omission. After all, if you never show any of the movie’s dialogue scenes, you don’t actually have to let the audience in on the fact that the film’s in Cantonese with English subtitles. This, however, is something learned from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film Miramax is here hoping to cash in on with this eight-year-old martial-arts fest from Woo Ping Yuen, who staged the fight scenes for Crouching Tiger. (Actually, the dialogue in the film already sounds dubbed and it probably wouldn’t have hurt things any to just dub this one into English.) Of course, in a movie like this, the dialogue isn’t really the point. And after all, when large chunks of the dialogue consist of little more than characters announcing what particular kung-fu move — “Buddha’s Palm,” “The Enraged Oxen,” “The Dying Yetti,” “The Flat Foot Floogie with the Floy Floy,” etc. — they’re up to now, it hardly matters. If martial-arts movies are your dish of rice, then what you’re there for are the spectacular fights — the more elaborate, impossible and outrageous, the better. On this score alone, Iron Monkey is almost certain to find a home with the genre’s established fan base. Whether it can cross over into a mainstream market, however, is more doubtful. The poetic qualities and epic vision that caused Crouching Tiger to cross over into that market are just not here. This is a bare-bones martial-arts flick — and that’s a downside if you’re looking for something more, or a plus if what you’re after is the real McMonkey. The plot is basically a kind of Robin Hood/Scarlet Pimpernel affair, with the Iron Monkey (Yu Rong-Guang) masquerading as a harmless herbal doctor by day and robbing from the rich to give to the poor by night. Complications arise when Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) and his son, Wong Fei-Hong (played by an 11-year -old girl, Tsang Sze-Man) arrive on the scene and are arrested as Iron Monkey suspects by the corrupt governor (James Wong). The governor ultimately imprisons the son, forcing Wong-Kei Ying to undertake the job of tracking down and capturing the Iron Monkey. It’s not a bad little twist, since it pits two good guys against each other — at least for part of the film. Other aspects of the plot are somewhat muddled, especially as concerns one of the Iron Monkey’s opponents, Chief Fox (Yuen Shun-yee), who mystifyingly turns into a nice guy part way through the proceedings. There’s no denying that the action scenes are breathtakingly achieved — even while being very obviously done with invisible wires a la Crouching Tiger — and, unless you’re seriously into this sort of thing, tend towards slight repetition. Fortunately, with a brief 86-minute running time, the film never pauses long enough to become in any way dull. The choreography and cinematography of the entire affair are as stunning as the plotting is trite and the acting is … well, let’s say broad. It appears to be a staple of the genre that the actors not only play any scene that’s even remotely comic in the most exaggerated possible manner, but virtually wink at the audience just to make sure that not even the slowest amongst us misses the joke. (All too often, it would be a blessing if the jokes were missed, since many of them are groaningly bad.) However, if you can go with this convention of the form, it helps keep Iron Monkey constantly good-natured entertainment. The climactic battle on — and sometimes with — burning poles is alone worth the price of admission for its sheer cleverness. And if that kind of invention and cleverness is what you’re after, then Iron Monkey is the movie that delivers it.
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