Sure, it had a brief run in theaters recently, but the occasion of Iron Monkey's DVD release makes me think how perfect this format is for martial arts movies. In so many Hong Kong classics, the chunks of narrative between fight scenes are pretty tedious — a pain to endure in theaters, a fast-forwarding headache on video. With DVD, each fight gets its own chapter stop.
Not that that's much of an issue in this film, which has a straightforward plot and doesn't bore you with too much information. The Iron Monkey is a Zorro/Robin Hood type, harassing corrupt officials to help his town's peasants. In the course of his adventures he meets young Wong Fei-hong, who's a hero in China's real-life history and has been featured in numerous films.
Monkey is a wire-fu spectacular from Yuen Wo Ping (fight choreographer of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — a film Quentin Tarantino calls "a nice, soft introduction" to the genre), whose gift for fight choreography is even more impressive in light of the fact that he was never trained as a martial artist himself. Here, the director is at his most outrageous, staging magnificent fights that lead up to one of the most memorable ever: two heroes fighting a villain while leaping around on fragile, up-ended poles as a fire rages beneath them.
Though the plot deliberately avoids the kind of emotional depth and melodrama found in Crouching Tiger, Western audiences will appreciate Monkey's reasonably high production values; in one or two scenes, it's hard to say whether the performers' acrobatics are more seductive than the amber-tinted photography that captures them.
In other places, beauty isn't the issue. The only possible response to two men perched on opposite ends of a pole that's teetering atop another pole — and then leaping in unison to kick their opponent and land across the courtyard — is a case of the giggles. Happily, Iron Monkey knows its comic-book tale works best when the thrills are balanced by giddy laughter.