Monkey Redux

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He floats through the air with the greatest of ease, this daring young Asian who mocks gravity. He scampers straight up walls, skims across rooftops, leaps over tall buildings in a single bound and, in general, plays completely fast and loose with the laws of physics. Our very first glimpse of him, in fact, is a beautifully visualized nocturnal sequence in which our black-clad, super-cool hero darts along a series of moonlit rooftops, feet never touching the ground, as graceful and as brimming with mystery as an Asian Irma Vep.

Sound familiar?

No, it's not Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The movie in question is a tasty little Hong Kong import called Iron Monkey, originally released in 1993, a full seven years before Crouching Tiger took the world by storm — so don't think for a second that this Monkey qualifies as a Tiger wannabe. If anything, it's the other way around. Iron Monkey is one of those steadfastly entertaining, wildly energetic Hong Kong classics to which Ang Lee's Oscar-winner paid homage.

In any event, Iron Monkey has been rescued from video quasi-oblivion and spiffed up by the good folks at Miramax for a theatrical run in the West, apparently signaling the first real sighting of that flood of Asian action-fantasies that was supposed to materialize in the wake of Crouching Tiger. Along with the help of Hong Kong movie aficionado/M.I.A. filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, Miramax scarfed up the rights to Iron Monkey, tweaked it a touch, gave it a brand new soundtrack and is currently in the process of releasing the movie stateside to what will surely be a whole new audience.

Good intentions aside, Miramax has not had the best of track records with past retoolings of foreign titles. The movie company's dubbed versions of assorted Jackie Chan movies (most notably Drunken Master 2, a.k.a. Legend of Drunken Master) have sold lots of tickets but have unintentionally made the movies seem far cheesier than they actually were and served to trivialize some otherwise fine films. The good news is that Miramax has done a very nice job with Iron Monkey.

No doubt encouraged by Crouching Tiger's ability to score big in a language other than English, Miramax has wisely retained Iron Monkey's original Cantonese language track, and even spent some time providing a more accurate and entertaining subtitle translation. The studio has replaced the film's original music with a new score by James L. Venable, but, if anything, the elegant new soundtrack actually adds to the film (at points you'll swear Yo-Yo Ma had been dragged over from the Crouching Tiger recording studio and put to work here).

Iron Monkey was directed by Yuen Woo Ping, who choreographed the brilliant action sequences in Crouching Tiger and The Matrix, and was produced by Tsui Hark, the man responsible for the longest streak of classic films in all of modern Hong Kong cinema. Iron Monkey reflects the sensibilities of both filmmakers and embodies much of what is right, and occasionally wrong, with Hong Kong movies. Yeun's tale of a 19th century Chinese Robin Hood is a bit short of character development, for instance, but that's easily understood since Iron Monkey is nothing less than a folk legend, peopled with heroes and villains who are by necessity larger than life. The movie is also a bit too broad in its mix of playful slapstick comedy and stylish melodrama, but the final effect is extremely pleasing. And not to overstate the case, but the frequent action scenes simply kick ass.

Although it's miles away from a masterpiece, there's a sweetness and unassuming innocence to the thrills offered by Iron Monkey that's probably right in synch with what American audiences are craving at this particular moment in time. The movie doesn't make any claims to the high art status or the lofty and protracted soul-searching of Crouching Tiger, but, in its own humble way, Iron Monkey displays sensibilities that often seem almost as poetic as those of Ang Lee's standard bearer, just as its consistently exciting hand-to-hand combat sequences are very nearly as dazzling. All this and not a single exploding building in sight.

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