Viking Night: Iron Monkey
By Bruce Hall
May 1, 2012
If by the early 1990s, most Americans were over their infatuation with Hong Kong cinema, it only meant that the country was full of terrible people with no taste in movies. This is not a crime, but I definitely intend to devote a future column to the many reasons why it should be. These were dark times indeed, filled with war, recession, and those soul destroying images of Bill Clinton’s tiny jogging shorts all over the news. But by 1993 there was hope. The recession was over, Whitney Houston would always love you, and William Shatner was there when you called 911.
And lost somewhere in the middle of this joyous resurgence was the release of a charming little action flick called Iron Monkey.
It was not a huge success in the United States, and it wasn’t any kind of groundbreaking milestone in Hong Kong cinema. It didn’t become the same consumer friendly hit Rumble in the Bronx would a few years later. It did not possess the romantic allure of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But it’s an overlooked classic - one of the very best period martial arts films made prior to 2000, and it’s stuffed full of every essential genre cliché you could ask for.
There’s a reluctant hero. There’s a village in danger, and it’s crawling with Shaolin monks. There’s an innocent love interest politely hinted at in Victorian terms. There’s a Dirty Traitor and a Revenge Angle. There’s a talented young prodigy just beginning to emerge from his father’s shadow. There’s even a Wacky Sheriff and a Dead Wife. And because the Chinese Action Movie Name Generator is the greatest thing in the world, the movie’s even correctly titled. Everyone knows that some variation on, or derivative of 30 Fists of Iron: Flying Jade Monkey Dragon Syndicate is the only acceptable title for a quality Hong Kong actioner.
The story is a brilliantly solid mash up of generic kung fu movie standards all in one efficient package. A prosperous village is preyed upon by a corrupt Governor and his bodyguard contingent of corrupt monks. A concerned local doctor named Yang Tianchun (Rongguang Yu) spends his off hours leaping between rooftops in a ninja outfit, stealing from the Governor’s rich friends and handing out the swag to the poor. It’s sort of a Batman meets Robin Hood thing, but in China, and without the green tights. Our hero calls himself the Iron Monkey, and he is an inspiration to the villagers.
Of course, the Governor (James Wong) hates his guts - so much so that he initiates a brutal regime of oppression against the village, designed to bait the Iron Monkey into a confrontation. It works, but the authorities are again outwitted and humiliated by their nemesis. What’s worse, the big bosses back at Evil Headquarters have grown impatient with the Governor’s inability to capture the outlaw. The unscrupulous bastard’s days of long lunches and pretty girls are at an end unless he can solve his Monkey problem - and fast.
Luckily, a famous kung fu master named Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen) happens to be passing through town with his son Fei-Hong (Sze-Man Tsang). This is a little like having Michael Vick walk on to your JV football squad, so the Governor forces Wong to get involved - by having Fei-Hong arrested and thrown in prison. For the sake of his son Wong reluctantly agrees to help, inadvertently becoming the Town Asshole in the process. Shunned by the public for hunting the Iron Monkey, Wong is eventually taken in by the good doctor Yang and his lovely assistant, Miss Orchid (Jean Wang).
After an evening of Top Chef Schezuan and polite conversation, Wong suddenly remembers he's one son down and explains his dilemma to Yang and Orchid. Of course, the elephant in the room is that Wong has no idea he's been stuffing his face in front of the Iron Monkey all night. The obvious irony is that the man Wong has sworn to destroy will now spring into action to save his only son. And the tragedy is that this means Wong and Yang are officially on a collision course. But soon, the two men have bigger problems. By interfering with the Governor's plans, the Iron Monkey uncovers a far more sinister truth, and incurs the wrath of a far more powerful enemy.