Somehow, in the early '90s, the Hong Kong film industry just had the action movie figured out. You'll see something like this every once in a while: A particular locale just going ham on some particular art form. It's like New York rap in the mid-'90s: All these classics coming out at a dizzying speed, all of them competing with and building on the others.
Hong Kong, of course, has been making amazing action movies for decades, and still is today, but that early-'90s period was just bafflingly fertile. Within a few years, this small country cranked out Hard-Boiled, Drunken Master 2, Full Contact, the first two Once Upon a Time in Chinas, Police Story 3: Supercop, The Heroic Trio, Fist of Legend, The Bride With White Hair, Riki-Oh: The Story of Riki, and a bunch of other stuff that I'm probably forgetting. You could build a diverse and bulletproof canon just out of the movies that came from Hong Kong between 1991 and 1994.
In a list like that, it might be easy to overlook Iron Monkey, a beautifully goofy kung fu romp. You shouldn't. Iron Monkey is the fucking shit.
Iron Monkey is one of about a million Hong Kong martial-arts movies to tell the story of the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, a real guy who's become a part of action-movie legend because so many actors have done great and different things with him. In the Once Upon a Time in China movies, Jet Li played Wong as a steadfast patriot. In the Drunken Master movies, Jackie Chan played him as a lovable, bumbling lush who got better at fighting as he got drunker. These characters can't possibly be the same guy, and yet they are. It's like how a comic book writer will come onto a title and have a radically different take on its main character. In Iron Monkey, the twist is that Wong Fei-Hung is a little kid.
To be clear: Wong Fei-Hung is a little kid with superpowers. Practically all the major characters in Iron Monkey have superpowers. They whirl around with gravity-defying, wire-enabled grace. They throw kicks so quickly that your brain can only just register them. They fly across rooftops and plow through armies of nameless goons and perform impossible balancing feats on burning logs. Iron Monkey is an old-school period-piece kung fu movie, with broad comedy bits and theatrically conniving villains and fight scenes structured like video-game levels, where the big boss only comes flying in after all his underlings have been beaten. If you love action movies, you've seen some version of this movie more times than you can count. But this is an old story told with a sense of fun and inventiveness, and it really adds something to see a little kid zipping around, doing all the thrillingly dangerous things that the grown-ups are doing.
Fei-Hung is actually a supporting character here, and he's played, fascinatingly enough, by Wushu medalist Angie Tsang, who went on to join the Hong Kong police force a decade after she made this. (Someone make a movie about her.) Iron Monkey's real stars are Yu Rongguang (as the Robin Hood-esque local superhero of the movie's title) and Donnie Yen (as Fei-Hung's father, Wong Kei-Ying). Rongguang plays the sort of role that Yen plays so frequently now: An endlessly empathetic paternal type who has the power to kick your nose off your face so quickly that you might not realize it's gone, though he'd rather not. Meanwhile, Yen, his face somehow 50 times more severe than it is now, is more of a drill-sergeant type, the sort of father who won't allow himself to show emotion around his kid. Both are absurdly skilled fighters, and naturally, both end up fighting each other before they realize that they should join forces and take on the real enemy.
Iron Monkey's writers (including Tsui Hark, who would go on to make the truly surreal Van Damme movie Double Team) realized something I wish Hollywood screenwriters would hurry up and figure out: Nobody needs to see another goddam superhero-origin story, ever. As Iron Monkey opens, we learn that the Iron Monkey is a masked avenger who harasses the local corrupt governor by stealing his gold and kicking his guards, and that he selflessly gives all the gold to his hometown's endless supply of broke refugees. That's all we need to know. Things escalate, and pretty soon the Iron Monkey and his band of thrown-together fight-virtuoso misfits has to fight a super-evil monk with a poison-palm fighting technique. It all ends in a truly crazy fight where everyone balances on wooden poles over a raging fire. Actually, practically the final half hour of the movie is one long, escalating fight scene, and it's about as good as this sort of thing gets.
Iron Monkey's director was Yuen Wo-Ping, the great fight choreographer who worked on movies like The Matrix, Kill Bill, and the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Given the man's credentials, it's no surprise that he made these fights breathlessly fast and exciting, or that he pretty much organizes the movie around them. It's not even a surprise that he makes a 13-year-old girl look like a world-conquering badass. The version of the movie on Netflix is edited, as so many Miramax-distributed martial-arts movies are, and dumbed down for an American audience. (It's not dubbed, at least, as so many of them are.) Certain scenes that flesh out the political context are gone, as are some of the comedy bits. But the biggest change is that Yuen sped up the film on some of the fight scenes for Hong Kong audiences, whereas the American distributors slowed the film back down again. I'm actually not mad at that change. Even moving at regular speed, the fighters in Iron Monkey move so quickly that you can barely register what they're doing; watching them sped up would be like watching a hummingbird hover and trying to pick out the finer points of wing-flap technique.
Iron Monkey is an unapologetically silly movie with great fight scenes, and that's all it needs to be for classic status. Later this year, Yuen will team up with Donnie Yen again on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II. It's going straight to Netflix, which should be interesting. The fight scenes, I imagine, will be awesome. But can Yuen conjure the beautifully repressed atmosphere of the original? And does it even matter? I guess we'll find out this summer.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: XXX | Headhunters | The Running Man | Project A | Homefront | Drug War | Robocop | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport | Battle Royale| Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone | Fearless | Red Dawn | Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master