IRON MONKEY is a co-production of Wung Tai Corporation and the Ching Hua Film Company. Back in 1977, this conglomeration was hot to produce their own period Kung Fu epic. They lured Shaw Brothers star Chen Kuan Tai to take a feature role in their independent effort by offering him directorial chores. Chen Kuan Tai was a popular martial arts actor at the time who starred in such Shaw Bros. Classics as THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS, and EXECUTIONERS OF DEATH. Despite being Chen Kuan Tai’s first directorial effort, IRON MONKEY was a trend setting hit in the genre, and still stands as a timeless piece of Kung Fu cinema. IRON MONKEY was among Xenon’s initial old-school entries on DVD; so don’t expect a high quality transfer or a variety of extras. But credit must be given to Xenon for delivering the movie uncut and in widescreen.
IRON MONKEY is elevated by a truly great cast of supporting performers second only to the Venoms crew. IRON MONKEY also stars Chi Kuan Chun as one of the Iron Monkey’s friends and fellow students. Chi Kuan Chun had lead roles in films like EAGLE’S CLAW, GOLDEN KILLAH, and GREEN JADE STATUETTE (those first two are available on DVD from Tai Seng and Xenon, respectively). The highly respected Leung Kar Yan has a supporting role as one of Iron Monkey’s military opponents. Leung Kar Yan has sparred with the best of them in films like KNOCKABOUT, LEGEND OF A FIGHTER, and DEMON STRIKE. Back in the Golden Age of Kung Fu cinema, Kam Kong was a highly respected and feared performer because he was always a powerful opponent. He was usually cast as the menacing villain, because he certainly was no pretty-boy. Kam Kong can also be seen in RETURN OF THE CHINESE BOXER, RENEGADE MASTER, and MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE. Wilson Tong, an experienced martial artist and actor in is own right also has a prominent role in IRON MONKEY. Tong starred in HAND OF DEATH, HE HAS NOTHING BUT KUNG FU, and MASTER KILLER.
"The Monkey Fist is the most difficult of all the martial arts. It calls for coordination from all parts of the body: limbs, eyes, brain and heart. With the coming of the Ching Dynasty, the art was forgotten. The Monkey Fist featured in this motion picture is based on research of the ancient Chinese chronicles of the martial arts, with certain modifications and refinement. Only the Eagle Claw style could hope to compete with the Monkey Fist. The Eagle Claw and the Monkey Fist are presented here to honor those heroes of bygone days, who developed these remarkable techniques. "
Thus begins the opening narration of IRON MONKEY. Kam Kong plays an evil Manchurian General, who desires to crush the revolutionaries who have ties to the Shaolin temple. Chen Kuan Tai is Iron, a naive young man who is unaware that his father is a leader of this underground movement. An undercover operative named Ho Yeng, who conned in his way into joining the rebellion, betrays Iron’s father. The entire family is captured (except for Iron) and the General schedules their executions the following day. Since the leader of the rebellion is now in his clutches, the General focuses on the capture of his enemy’s son, Iron. A witness to this heinous act warns Iron and he manages to escape the village and avoid capture from the Ching army. He becomes a wild, animalistic wanderer who survives by stealing food from a nearby Shaolin temple. He also watches the hopefuls who train in the martial arts there. A group of students eventually catch him breaking into the temple, and they comment on his monkey-like agility. One student (Chi Kuan Chun) follows him into the woods and suggests that Iron become a student of the Shaolin Temple. The Abbot is more than happy to accept him as a pupil, but he notices the look of anger in the young man’s eyes. Iron refuses to comment on his agenda or his identity, so the Abbott assigns him a new identity—that of Iron Monkey.
Iron Monkey soon proves himself a natural in the temple training arena. In a short time, he becomes a top student, at the expense of his peers’ friendship (as they are naturally jealous). Soon, the head monks inform the students that they must select a specialized martial arts technique. Naturally, Iron Monkey selects the fearsome Monkey Fist method, which is unrivaled in the martial arts world, except for Eagle’s Claw style. The Abbot sends Iron Monkey out into the wilderness where he is trained by the exiled Bitter Monk. In a year’s time, Iron Monkey masters the Monkey Fist and returns to the temple with confidence and ability. The Abbott welcomes him back, but senses that Iron Monkey is still motivated by hatred and rage. The Abbot tells him that he must alleviate his inner pain, and return to the temple a wiser man cleansed of hatred. The timing is perfect as the General’s guard intrude upon the Shaolin temple to recruit martial artists to the Ching cause. But the students and monks are loyal to their beliefs, and no one sells out—except for Iron Monkey. Like the hated betrayer of his father, Ho Yeng, Iron Monkey plans to join the Manchus and destroy their organization from within. His ultimate goal is to get close to the General, so he can assassinate the man responsible for the death of his family. But first he must prove himself.
The General doesn’t trust Iron Monkey and assigns him the task of hunting and killing suspected revolutionaries. Iron Monkey immerses himself in Manchu propaganda and begins beating and killing his own people! But, the Captains and the General take notice of his skills and behavior, and he is given a promotion. The Manchus still don’t trust him and orders him to kill more radicals. The more people Iron Monkey kills, the higher he rises in the Ching hierarchy. Eventually he becomes equal in rank to the Captains that recruited him. But he has still not achieved his goal of meeting the General. When the Manchus order Iron Monkey to crush the Shaolin Temple itself, he realizes he must finally make his move. He confronts the entire chain of the Manchu hierarchy, starting with the traitor Ho Yeng, to the Captains, and finally the General himself. However, the General did not earn his position for nothing. He is a master of the Eagle’s Claw—the only form of martial arts that can overcome the Monkey Fist!
What makes IRON MONKEY such an absorbing martial arts drama, is the sub-plot of the lead character abandoning his Shaolin-bred ideals and beliefs to join with his family’s killers. The Iron Monkey is obviously burning with hatred for this Manchurian regime. But he controls and channels his anger as he joins their ranks. To prove his worth to them, he must slaughter innocent people. There are moments in IRON MONKEY where the viewer does indeed question Iron’s motives. Is he that crazed for revenge that he’s willing to kill innocents? Finally, when he takes out the Manchu General does the audience realize that Iron Monkey was fighting for more than just revenge, but for the freedom of his people. He realizes sacrifices must be made to achieve lofty goals. Chen Kuan Tai gives a career-defining performance as Iron Monkey, with more character development than any of his previous films. Even as he rises in power in the Manchurian chain of command, you can read the pain and despair on Chen Kuan Tai’s face, and he convinces you that this is really happening. When IRON MONKEY begins, Chen Kuan Tai portrays his character as a spoiled brat, who wants nothing to do with the Manchus. But after the death of his family, the character begins his evolution. This allows Chen Kuan Tai to really show the range of his acting talents. Even though Chen Kuan Tai has starred in some of the best Kung Fu classics of all time, he will always remembered by this film.
The only weakness in Chen Kuan Tai’s directorial debut is the pacing. IRON MONKEY kicks off with an exciting piece of combat choreography, as the Manchurian army attempts to eliminate the rebels. After this scene when Iron’s family is captured and tortured, the pace slows down dramatically. Then begins the lengthy training sequences that comprise many of these films. The jaded character of the Bitter Monk adds a fresh spin on the training techniques employed here, which never becomes boring. The Bitter Monk forces Chen Kuan Tai to spar with a real monkey! Finally, at the half way point, Iron Monkey joins the ranks of the Manchus and much fighting and violence ensues. But the best fights come in the last act when Iron Monkey betrays the Manchus. With only a spear as a weapon, Iron Monkey takes out an entire battalion of the Manchurian army. Then the audience is treated to masterfully choreographed one-on-one bouts between Chen Kuan Tai and Leung Kar Yan , Wilson Tong, and Kam Kong. IRON MONKEY mixes in plenty of weapons battles including swordplay, spears, and a three-sectional staff. Of course, Kam Kong’s Eagle Claw strike is more deadly than any of those weapons! The authenticity of the Monkey Fist and Eagle’s Claws techniques on display in IRON MONKEY are commendable.
Xenon presents the film in the original 1.85.1 aspect ratio. While the widescreen compositions preserve the grandeur of IRON MONKEY, the source print used for the transfer is flawed. I can live with the scratches and wear evident in the picture, but the colors are almost completely faded to the point where IRON MONKEY seems like a black & white movie. Granted, this dark tone enhances the somber mood of the movie, but the constant murkiness becomes distracting after a while. On the positive side, the picture is sharp and detailed. The black levels and contrast are well balanced. The widescreen transfer delivers the fight choreography without any loss of picture information. IRON MONKEY is a violent Kung Fu epic, with much brutality and death, through the blood appears more black than red. If you consider the quality of the film (and the 1977 vintage), the flaws apparent in widescreen image should not deter fans of this genre. I’ll take a flawed widescreen transfer over a perfectly cropped full frame image any day.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital Mono 2.0, which is the usual mix of exaggerated martial arts moves, dubbed dialog, and period music. The sound effects are adequately recreated in the sound field, with the punches and kicks having significantly more impact. The rushing sound of swords, spears, and other weapons cleaving through the air enhances the combat sequences. Unlike the Crash Cinema Kung Fu series on DVD (where the dialog is barely audible), the English dialog here is clear and natural. The highlight of the soundtrack is the score. Many Kung Fu films of this period have pilfered music from American and Japanese productions, and IRON MONKEY continues this trend. This film contains music from Japan’s greatest composer, Akira Ifukube!!! Mr. Ifukube has provided music for everything from Akira Kurosawa epics to Godzilla movies. The music in this film is lifted from the original DAIMAJIN. While I don’t approve of this tactic, the stolen music does heighten the dramatic elements of IRON MONKEY.
Xenon’s DRAGON CLAWS DVD features some colorful menus with artwork of Chen Kuan Tai doing his thing. From the main menu, you can access the Coming Attractions menu. This menu reveals a trailer for Rudy Ray Moore’s SHAOLIN DOLEMITE. The full frame trailer is in good condition and runs 1:31. There is no trailer for IRON MONKEY. This DVD was one of the first done by Xenon, so the extras are nil. But their recent releases (like DRAGON’S CLAW’S or BORN INVINCIBLE) have reflected an attempt to rectify the generic status of their initial output.
IRON MONKEY is a rare independent effort that proves essential Kung Fu fare can be produced outside of the major studios like Golden Harvest or the Shaw Brothers. With an A-level cast, superior plot, great score, and exhausting martial arts choreography, IRON MONKEY bears the distinction of a true classic. One word of warning to those who are easily offended; IRON MONKEY contains scenes of animal cruelty (such as a real monkey and eagle exchanging blows), and a few shocking moments that qualify as child abuse (a kid is strangled in full view of the camera). But kudos to Xenon Entertainment for not bowing to political correctness by cutting these offending footage, and for presenting IRON MONKEY in widescreen.
-- Tony Mustafa