''Iron Monkey'' is the real deal -- it's got kung fu, comedy, and sellout crowds on its side, says Ty Burr
Donnie Yen
Credit: Iron Monkey: Miramax Films

How to have a Zen moment at the movies

What was the secret winner among the movies that debuted in theaters Oct. 12? It wasn’t ”Bandits,” which grossed $13 million, surprisingly soft for a crime comedy that stars Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and their respective hairpieces. (In a novel if not ridiculous tactic, an MGM exec tried to blame ”Bandits”’ second-place showing on the anthrax virus.) It wasn’t ”Corky Romano,” although the Chris Kattan comedy’s $11 million budget means this latest ”SNL” D.O.A. transplant probably turned a profit by the 10 p.m. Friday screening.

No, the underground hit of the weekend had to be ”Iron Monkey,” which rang up almost $6 million at 1,225 theaters — for a $4,700 per-screen average that was almost as high as box office champ ”Training Day”’s — despite being: 1) eight years old, 2) in Cantonese with English subtitles, and 3) without a major Hong Kong crossover star on the order of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, or Jet Li.

Well, all right, there was one name that might have spoken to audiences beyond hardcore Hong Kong action devotees (and they already know ”Monkey” from video and DVD): director Yuen Wo-Ping, who has become semifamous here since serving as fight choreographer on ”The Matrix” and ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Still, it’s safe to say that 90 percent of the audience whooping it up in the sold-out weekend shows (in New York City, anyway) didn’t know from Yuen, or even costar Donnie Yen, who gets miles of charisma out of his unsmiling, no-BS persona.

The reason ”Iron Monkey” kicked out the jams out of all proportion to its Stateside star wattage is pretty simple: It moves like hell and it barely makes sense. Admittedly, the pump has been primed by the box office success of Jackie Chan’s Hollywood films and the artistic success of ”Crouching Tiger,” but unlike those films, ”Monkey” hasn’t been cultured up or dumbed down. This is the real deal: a 19th-century Chinese Robin Hood tale that indulges in slapstick humor, breakneck fight scenes, characters straight out of a comic book, sappy love music, and bad guys with killer sleeves.

There’s one point where the film stops dead for a cooking lesson. There’s the part where everyone fights while balancing on flaming poles. There’s the delicate heroine’s obligatory purple-drenched flashback to her prostitute past. There’s the ”Buddhist Palm” (don’t try it at home). There’s even the familiar role of Wong Fei-hong, the kung fu-fightin’ real life character who’s the hero of countless Hong Kong period actioners (including ”Once Upon a Time in China,” starring Jet Li). Here Wong is but a kid, and if things weren’t surreal enough, ”he” is played by Jean Wang, a young girl who’s almost a match for ”Tiger”’s demolition damsel Zhang Ziyi.

I had something of an epiphany as I watched ”Iron Monkey.” It was toward the end, during the giganto climactic battle dance where everybody gets a solo spotlight: masked avenger and kindly doctor Iron Monkey (Yu Rong-guang), his Shaolin-monk fighting partner (Donnie Yen), the monk’s son (Wang), the evil royal minister with the killer sleeves, and his two scarred assassins. Pretty much everyone except the grips and the catering crew. And at a certain point, narrative sense simply floated away from the screen, and I became entranced by sheer kinesis: color, light, movement, sound, all artfully arranged, suddenly beyond meaning. It was a near Zen moment; it was pure cinema; it was a tonic in a town scared of envelopes. And it easily beat two guys in toupees cracking smug one-liners.

Iron Monkey
  • Movie
  • 86 minutes