IRON MONKEY (2020) review

p2607367095Yue Song is a unique performer in China’s – and indeed the world’s – filmic landscape. A one-man army who writes, produces, directs, choreographs, plays the lead role and does his own stunts in his films, never taking a single role in anybody else’s project. As a result, his output has been sparse, with each of his films a passion project to which he devotes his mind and sacrifices his body with Jackie Chan-like abandon. After the relatively little-seen King of the Streets in 2012, his following film, Super Bodyguard (released as Iron Protector in the US), caused a bit more of a stir four years later with its entertaining mix of unironic, vanity-filled silliness and excellent, bone-crunching fights. Now it’s been another four years and Yue is back with Iron Monkey (no relation to the Yuen Woo Ping classic), released straight to VOD at a time when Chinese theaters haven’t re-opened yet.

The plot shamelessly rips off George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road: in a post-apocalyptic future, the earth is barren, an endless desert where gangs are the law. One of these gangs is known as the ‘Wolf Boat’, led by the formidable Sky (Chen Zhihui) a kind of low-key Immortan Joe who rules over ruthless road warriors whom he recruits at a young age, and holds young women captive, hoping to harvest their heart to extend his life. But one day, the deadliest of his men, Thunder (Yue Song), rebels, frees the women and escapes with them into the desert. The rest of the gang soon gives chase. Basically, Yue Song gave himself the Furiosa role (Furioso then), and for ten minutes it looks like the film is set to venture into plagiarism lawsuit territory, as spiked vehicles and furious motorcycles go at one other in the desert. After that however, the film takes its own path, evolving into an extended stalk-and-fight action scene in an abandoned steel mill.

On top of its derivative premise, Iron Monkey also puzzles with its very short runtime. At 61 minutes the end credits start rolling, the bare minimum runtime to be considered a feature film. Actually, as the final minutes of footage tease an already-shot, equally action-packed sequel, the meat of the movie is under an hour. While the upcoming follow-up means that the plot’s many loose ends don’t jar so much, the one-hour duration gives the film the feel of a TV pilot episode.

And that’s a shame, because despite the aforementioned derivativeness, Iron Monkey is a brisk and enjoyable little post-apocalyptic actioner. Its initial chase through the desert, while solid, suffers tremendously from comparison with the film it so obviously apes, but when the action settles in the abandoned mill, it never lets up. From minute 25 to minute 60, we’re treated to one brutal brawl after another, with brute power and MMA influences reminiscent of Donnie Yen’s work, and wince-inducing stuntwork that recalls the great Panna Rittikrai (of Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong fame), all captured with kinetic fluidity. As always with Yue Song, there’s a faintly ridiculous sense of vanity to the proceedings (he’s unstoppable and he likes to wears sunglasses inside, you see), and clumsy flashbacks trying to flesh out the characters but piling on the clichés instead. But this is small-scale yet ambitious action that belongs on the big screen, and with better scripts. We said in our Super Bodyguard review that for Yue’s career to really kick off, he might need to start appearing in – and perhaps choreographing for – other people’s films, in addition to his own. It’s even more true now.

Long Story Short: Strikingly perfunctory and derivative, Iron Monkey nevertheless regales with almost non-stop, bone-crunching action. **1/2

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