I’ve been saying this for years and I have no qualms about saying it now, Iron Monkey is one of the best martial arts movies ever made. As a bonus, the version being released here in the States doesn’t have me reaching for my revolver. Seriously. Buoyed by the success of Sony’s Chinese language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Miramax has gone and done what would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago- release Yuen Wo-Ping’s 1993 classic basically uncut and in the original Cantonese language. Sure, with new subtitles, a new soundtrack and new sound effects it’s not exactly the original version; but it’s a lot closer than I ever expected to see from one of these Hollywood re-releases. Besides, since I like the new soundtrack, subtitles and sound effects, I’m actually happy with the changes. In all honesty, if they hadn’t left out Wong Fei-Hung’s theme, I would have no complaints at all with their handling of the film.
Will wonders never cease?
Anyway, as you might expect with a big (for Hong Kong) budget, Yuen Wo-Ping at the helm, a full complement of the Yuen Clan involved in the production (both behind and in front of the camera) and Yu Rong-Guang and Donnie Yen as the leads, this film features some of the best martial arts choreography ever laid down. Sure, it’s also a well-made film with a good story and healthy doses of humor, but it’s the joyous, spontaneous grin-inducing action makes this film a personal favorite. Blending traditional action and some truly wild wire-work, Iron Monkey achieves a great balance between the two styles and in the process sets the high mark for 90s style choreography (I discount Drunken Master 2 because that’s “Jackie Chan-style” choreography and that’s really a category by itself.)
Check it out.
Bonus: Q& A with Donnie Yen.
After a week of playing phone tag, I caught up with Donnie this past weekend to talk to him about this film and his future plans.
R: How’s the week been? You’ve been pretty busy right?
D: Yeah, I’ve been everywhere: Detroit, New York, Baltimore, San Fran…
R: How has the reaction been so far?
D: Most of the reviewers and reporters that I’ve spoken to seem very, very positive. They really like the film. It’s been unbelievable how far Hong Kong action films have come along [in the United States.]
R: Especially with this sort of presentation.
D: Definitely, I think Crouching Tiger changed everything.
R: What did you think of it?
D: Crouching Tiger? Oh, I’m happy. The successes of films that have played in the States in the last two years have sort of lead up to this. Because, all of a sudden, you turn on the TV and every element has been influence by Hong Kong action films: Cartoons, Mtv, Television shows. I think it’s opened up a lot of doors for people like myself and has given us an opportunity to really share our art.
[We’re cut off, Donnie pulls over to the side of the road an we continue. Yes, he was driving for the first part of this…]
R: Yuen Wo-Ping. In a lot of ways this film is a culmination of your partnership.
D: It’s one of our best films working together.
R: It’s certainly my favorite. What was it like working on this film with him and how do you feel about the way he’s venerated because of his work on Crouching Tiger and The Matrix?
D: First of all I don’t think he really did that much on The Matrix, although that had such an influence. I think, the success of The Matrix is sort of a combination of things- the story, the special effects… He came along with that. I think Crouching Tiger was definitely ground breaking, not only to the American audience- I personally like Crouching Tiger a whole lot. There were criticisms of Crouching Tiger; some say it had been done many times before in Hong Kong martial arts films. And in fact, a lot of elements originated in films like Iron Monkey. But I think it’s different. There’s nothing new under the sun, it’s all the way you package it. How you redo it. Crouching Tiger had its own flavor. You’ve got Ang Lee directing which gave it its own unique flavor.
But, as far as martial arts goes? I think Iron Monkey is definitely still on top of Crouching Tiger. Iron Monkey didn’t have the same kind of budget with the production values and the scenery, but if you’re talking about pure martial arts choreography, Iron Monkey is the film.
R: Yeah, I think one of the things is, aside from Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger not a lot of people in that film had experience fighting in front of the camera. As opposed to Iron Monkey where practically everybody does.
D: Yeah, Iron Monkey is a kung fu film. It’s truly a martial arts film.
I can’t believe that a couple of years ago you have martial arts films at a certain level here in America. Now, you bring in the highest level of martial arts films and Iron Monkey is definitely one of those films. Now it’s really setting the standard to, “world standard.” I think it’s a great thing. We’re no longer going to see bad martial arts in films.
R: It’s very exciting.
D: Iron Monkey is going to expose to American audiences that this is the way it’s supposed to be done.
R: Awesome. For me it’s very exciting I’ve been championing these films for so long, now to see… especially something produced in Hong Kong during one of the highest points artistically for the genre (the early nineties), presented like this… It’s very exciting to me. And it opens the door for guys like you…
Let’s talk about you for a couple of minutes. What’s going on with you? Obviously, you’ve got Iron Monkey coming out, and Blade 2. Have you finished shooting that and when does that come out?
D: Beginning of next year? I’m not sure.
R: How was that experience? You worked with Wesley Snipes on that…
D: Yeah, working with him was great. He’s a very talented martial artist, believe it or not. He’s very knowledgeable. It’s surprised me. There are a lot of martial artists out there. It’s not just and Asian thing any more, it’s part of American culture, so I wouldn’t have been that surprised if he were just a good martial artist. But he was a good Chinese martial artist. He knows a lot about the culture end of it and the philosophy behind it. So, that really impressed me. And just his whole attitude was so great. Walking onto the set, with the full costume, but yet he went through all the rehearsals. You saw him sweating. He’s a perfectionist. He asked to give him guidance, in order to better himself.
The first scenes I choreographed for him, I was holding back in terms of giving him all the intricate choreography. But the second, because of how impressive he was in the first scenes, I went on to give him the whole choreography. He was great.
R: Sounds good. So what else is going on with you?
D: There’s a TV series with John Woo, Terence Chang and Peter Lenkov. It’s produced by Fireworks. We’re talking to different networks. I’ll know a little more about it in a couple weeks. It’s very promising. The story is called Sinner. It’s kind of like a kung fu/ Batman production. [He] saves lives with his martial arts skill.
R: How did that come about?
D: About 8-9 months ago, Peter Lenkov, the producer for shows like La Femme Nikita, and Level 9, approached me. He wanted to make a show with me and we started developing it.
R: How did John Woo get involved?
D: Terence has always wanted to do something with me. It’s [just a question of finding] the right project. They heard about the project, they wanted to get involved and the next thing you know, we’re a team.
R: What will John Woo’s involvement be?
D: He’s just going to produce the show and add creative input
R: Anything else?
D: I guess, nothing is confirmed until it happens, so I’m not going to say anything too soon. But there are a quite a number of projects we’re negotiating right now; especially with this movie coming out. And despite the box office and reviews of Highlander, I think most people liked my performance and Miramax still believes in me. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re really promoting me in Iron Monkey– besides, of course, having Yuen Wo-Ping directing the film, with his success in Crouching Tiger. This whole Hong Kong action trend, this whole Asian actor is in real demand right now. So there are a lot of opportunities right here in Hollywood.
R: Yeah, with Rush Hour 2 doing two hundred- whatever million now and Crouching Tiger close to that….
D: Everything’s pretty good.
This interview originally appeared in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in 2001