Iron Monkey

Iron Monkey (1993)

Dir. Yuen Woo-Ping

Written by: Tan Cheung, Tai-Muk Lau, Pik-Yin Tang, Tsui Hark

Starring: Rongguang Yu, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, James Wong

 

I picked up Iron Monkey on DVD in 2003, sight unseen, at my local Circuit City. I’ve written my high school interest in kung fu movies to death, but that isn’t the only thing that led me to grab a copy of this particular movie that day. The final deciding factor between me grabbing Iron Monkey and yet another bad English transfer of a Bruce Lee classic was the phrase “Quentin Tarantino Presents” above the film’s title on the DVD cover. At that time, Tarantino was the major cinematic gatekeeper and influence in my life, and an endorsement from him was enough to get me to plunk down $15 on a random kung fu flick that I didn’t even realize was already ten years old. When I got home, I found the movie to be an exciting and delightful addition to my little collection of martial arts movies. It was fresh, and seemed thoroughly modern; in fact, I don’t think that I even realized it was made in the early 1990s until after I had watched it several times. Once again, I had trusted QT, the cinephile’s director, to lead me to an influential classic, and once again, he had delivered.

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Set in Imperial China, Iron Monkey is a sort of Robin Hood tale. The kind Dr. Yang (Yu) and his assistant, Miss Orchid (Wang), care for the poor and sick, while a corrupt provincial governor, Cheng (Wong), hoards both wealth and food, keeping his citizens in poverty and squalor. By night, the governor and his wealthy courtesans are menaced by a masked ninja, known as the Iron Monkey, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Cheng attempts to employ a squad of disgraced Shaolin monks to capture the Iron Monkey, but to no avail. Meanwhile, a stranger, Wong Kei-ying (Yen), arrives in town with his son, Wong Fei-hong (Angie Tsang) in tow. The governor’s guards believe him to be the Iron Monkey, so they arrest father and son, but the real Iron Monkey arrives to free them. While Wong Kei-ying initially fights the Iron Monkey to a draw in an attempt to clear his name and prove his devotion to the governor, the two eventually join forces when Wong Fei-hong is captured. When a new governor, the disgraced Shaolin monk, Hin-Hung (Yen Shi-kwan), is sent from the emperor, Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-ying have to fight with all of their strength to defeat him and restore power to the people of the province.

The plot of Iron Monkey is fairly typical, borrowing as it does from traditional Chinese folk history, as well as from the archetypal history of figures in the popular imagination such as Robin Hood. Of course, few viewers are looking for nuanced, layered storytelling when they sit down to enjoy this type of action film. Fans of the kung fu genre will appreciate the film as an origin story for cult hero Wong Fei-hong, as well as for its nods to Chinese folklore and history. Western audiences will likely be attracted to the film’s quick pace and light tone, with the American release being edited both for content and for length. Everyone can likely agree that it’s a film that delivers on the promise of well-choreographed and well-executed action set pieces, and that it mixes in plenty of comedy and intrigue, which is a signature of the Hong Kong studio style. Though it’s obviously stylistically very different that these films, Iron Monkey has the same sort of crossover appeal that Jackie Chan’s action movies were experiencing in America in the mid-1990s, although I can understand why it wasn’t released domestically until after the kung fu craze of the early-2000s that was kicked off by the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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I think the biggest takeaway I had from watching Iron Monkey again for the first time in many, many years, was how much I enjoyed watching Donnie Yen’s fight performance. He’s such a versatile and smooth performer, incorporating many different styles of martial arts into his fight scenes. I think that the last thing that I saw Yen in was Star Wars: Rogue One, in which he plays a blind Jedi who is able to move through the world guided by the Force, and this sort of natural flow is on display in Iron Monkey. Yen is also aided by performing in scenes directed by the venerable Hong Kong veteran, and eventual famed Hollywood fight choreographer, Yuen Woo-Ping. The film’s final fight scene, in which Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-ying battle Hin-Hung held up perfectly to my memories of it. The final fight takes place atop bamboo poles, which the combatants have climbed to escape a raging fire that has broken out in the town square. Yen and Yu perform acrobatic stunts, lithely leaping from pole to pole, dressed identically, while Yen Shi-kwan appears impossibly big and powerful, stalking across the poles as the battle arena drastically shrinks while the poles are engulfed in flames. It’s a study in contrasting styles, as are so many climactic fights in these types of movies, but the setting, the charisma of the performers, and the excellent direction by Yuen add up to make it an all-time classic. It’s a fitting ending to for a movie that is the embodiment of a certain brand of Hong Kong studio action films of its period.

I’ve been looking forward to this post for a while now because Iron Monkey is an old favorite of mine, and, like the majority of the kung fu movies in my collection, I’ve neglected returning to it for too long. It was just as good as I remembered it being, and there were a handful of elements of the movie I had forgotten that enriched my enjoyment of it. I didn’t remember at all that it was a Wong Fei-hong origin story, and I suppose that I wasn’t aware of the fact that through its association with Tsui Hark, who is a producer and credited writer on the film, Iron Monkey operates as an adjacent film or even prequel to the Once Upon A Time in China series. I don’t know about Iron Monkey’s availability in America before its 2001 limited theatrical release and this subsequent DVD release, but I would imagine that it might have been available at some point on premium cable, and almost certainly it was available on a bootleg VHS somewhere. I know that I might not have encountered it were it not for a push from one of my favorite filmmakers at the time, and I’m glad that I did because this is definitely one of the superior martial arts movies of the 1990s.

Inside Man

Inside Man (2006)

Dir. Spike Lee

Written by: Russel Gewirtz

Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Chiwetel Ejiofor

 

No Crooklyn or Clockers. No 25th Hour, which is likely my favorite Spike Lee joint, and no Do The Right Thing, which is a glaring omission in my collection. The only movie directed by Spike Lee that I own (aside from his excellent four part Hurricane Katrina docu-series, When the Levee Broke) is Inside Man, and while it might not be as iconic as some of Spike’s earlier work, watching it again served as a reminder that he’s a filmmaker with an instantly recognizable style that has proved to be perfectly malleable to different genres and modes of filmmaking. Inside Man finds Spike working from an original script that largely eschews politics or issues of race, and delivering a top-rate thriller that stands up alongside the classic heist movies that influenced it. The casting is excellent, the script provides a roller coaster of twists and turns, and Spike’s direction proves as deft as ever, brilliantly capturing the action in a way that feels immediate and artistic. I hadn’t watched this movie in a long time, but I remembered it being a favorite of mine the year that it was released, and the rewatch reaffirmed my suspicions that this should be a sneaky entry into the best Spike Lee movies conversation.

Inside Man doesn’t set out to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the heist genre, but it does provide enough twists and turns along the way that it should keep even attentive first time viewers guessing until the very end of the movie. The movie is really quite simple, with a group of bank robbers, disguised as a painting crew and led by the charismatic thief Dalton Russell (Owen), descend upon the First Manhattan Bank. They set about rounding up the tellers and customers, and force all of their hostages to put on matching painter’s jumpsuits, effectively erasing the distinction between hostage and thief. Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) is the hostage negotiator assigned to the bank robbery, and when he and his partner, Detective Bill Mitchell (Ejiofor), arrive on the scene, the action begins in earnest. The cat and mouse game between Dalton and Frazier plays out as expected, with Dalton seeming to maintain the upper hand nearly throughout. The dynamics change, however, when Madeleine White (Foster), something of a fixer for the very rich and powerful, enters into the negotiations on behalf of the bank’s founder, Arthur Chase (Christopher Plummer). The trio circle around one another, each attempting to broker the best deal for his or her chosen side, until the hostage situation ends dramatically with Dalton releasing his hostages immediately before a SWAT unit bursts through the bank’s front doors. Dozens of people tumble out of the bank and into the street, all dressed identically, and from there it’s up to the police to not only determine the “who” and “what” of the robbery, but also the “why.”

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Right off the bat, one of the biggest things that Inside Man has going for it is its phenomenal cast. Denzel Washington and Clive Owen are perfect foils, and although they only share one major scene in the film, the polar opposite energies in their performances are a driving force behind the film. Detective Frazier is a vintage Denzel role, and the officer’s cocksure style and verbose nature provide ample opportunity for Washington to chew the scenery and put his signature perfectly delivered line performance on display. He’s completely in his element in Inside Man, and the back-slapping, bullshitting, charismatic performance is a pleasure to watch. It’s matched by Owen’s quieter, less embellished work as the film’s antagonist. He plays Dalton Russell as the literal embodiment of the platitude, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” While he maintains control of the hostage situation through immaculate planning and execution, he also engages in well-timed bursts of violence to keep his hostages frightened and confused. Owen is convincing as both the mastermind of a perfect crime and as a madman willing to kill anyone who would stand in the way of the completion of his goals. As the third lead, Foster doesn’t get quite the screen time that her male counterparts enjoy, but she makes the most of her big scenes. She matches the gravitas of legendary actor Christopher Plummer, conceding nothing in her steely performance. I’m not a huge fan of the way that Madeleine White is written as a character, because her lack of backstory and depth kind of makes her seem like a career-focused automaton, but Foster is adept in the role, and she brings a hard directness to her negotiation style that well complements both Washington’s conversational style and Owen’s more reticent, intellectually guarded position.

The larger lesson of the film Inside Man is that a story is truly in the telling, and both the film’s form and content support that position. Spike Lee lends his visual panache to an already well-written crime film from first-time screenwriter Gewirtz. He moves his camera restlessly to mirror the disorientation that the blindfolded and bound hostages must feel. He features some masterful tracking shots both inside the bank and in the street outside of it. While Inside Man might not be as formally inventive as Do The Right Thing or The 25th Hour, Spike includes a few strange moments where he harkens to some of his more experimental and independent roots. One brief tracking shot where Detective Frazier appears to float directly at the camera springs to mind immediately. The directorial choice to tell the story out of order, interspersing the presentation of the robbery and negotiation with interrogations of hostages and robbers after the fact, also leads to a richer telling, maintaining the audience’s lack of narrative surety and keeping them strung along until the very end. The film’s ending, which plays out like a prophecy and is somewhat reminiscent of the ending of The Usual Suspects, never fails to leave a smile on my face. It’s a perfect bow on this present of a movie that begs to be unwrapped more than once.

Film Title: Inside Man.

Inside Man was well received when it was released, both commercially and critically, but it isn’t a movie that immediately pops into my mind when I’m thinking about movies from that period in time, or about Spike Lee movies. I really should consider it more, because it’s an enjoyable experience every time I watch it, and even though I’m more than familiar with the movie’s myriad plot twists, it doesn’t seem any less satisfying rewatching it several times. I have to accredit this to the cast’s perfect embodiment of their respective roles and to Spike Lee’s impeccable direction. Even though he came onto the project essentially as a hired gun, he reportedly relished the opportunity to direct a modern take on Dog Day Afternoon, and his enthusiasm shows. Even working from someone else’s source material, the telling of the tale is all Spike Lee. The movie’s tone and visual style, its subtle references to American racial politics, its essential “New York-ness,” are all signature elements of a classic Spike Lee joint. If you haven’t seen Inside Man, I’ve tried to avoid any real spoilers here so go out and track it down for yourself. If you have seen Inside Man, don’t hesitate to give it another shot because it’s a richly rewarding and engaging film.

 

POST SCRIPT

I missed my deadline on this post for the first time in a while with this project. While I typically try to work 2-3 weeks ahead of time, my months of October and November have been hectic, both personally and professionally, and I’ve been left with less and less time to work on this project. I’m hoping that in the next few weeks my schedule will be more accomodating and that I’ll be able to continue working up to the standard that I hope to uphold for this writing.