15. Iron Monkey
If there’s one thing director Yuen Woo-Ping does better than anybody, it’s fanciful martial arts smorgasbords that deftly blend humor and violence, stunt work and fight choreography with the grace of a long-time master. Though his films tend to be a little visually flat, he makes up for this deficiency by creating kung fu fantasy entertainment that moves quickly and seldom gives the viewer a chance to get bored, and he can cut together an action sequence with unparalleled skill. There’s a reason why he’s so frequently called upon to direct the action in so many Hollywood movies—he’s one of the very best.
Iron Monkey is a fantastic showcase for Yuen’s unique storytelling style and talent for concocting outlandish fight scenes that often depend as much on setting as they do on arcane styles and innovative weapons. In this story, peasants driven from their homes by war and disease find themselves preyed upon by the governor of the town they flee to, as well as by unscrupulous merchants. Helping them is the black-clad Iron Monkey, who steals from the wealthy governor and distributes his gold to the poor.
The Iron Monkey is actually local physician Yang Tianchun (Yu Rongguang) who charges his poorest patients nothing while making it up by heavily charging his richest ones. The governor, incensed by the theft of his gold, arrests anyone who could possibly be Iron Monkey, including a young Wong Fei-Hung (the same folk hero character played by Jet Li in the Once Upon a Time In China series and by
Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master films) and his physician father Wong Kei-Ying (played by Donnie Yen). He holds Fei-Hung prisoner to blackmail Kei-Ying into catching Iron Monkey, who saves Fei-Hung from being branded by the governor’s guards. In time, Kei-Ying learns that Yang and Iron Monkey are one and the same person after Yang is hit by the poisonous Buddhist Palm wielded by a powerful Shaolin monk working for the Emperor.
Wong Fei-Hung is captured after a fight with a group of corrupt monks, and Kei-Ying and Iron Monkey must join forces to rescue him and restore justice to the town by defeating the evil monk in a fight that takes place almost entirely atop vertical wooden poles as flames threaten to engulf the combatants.
Released in the US through Miramax Films by Quentin Tarantino, Iron Monkey might be the very first film by Yuen Woo-Ping to play in American multiplexes. As is often the case in these situations, several changes were made to the print for its American debut, but they won’t detract from anyone’s enjoyment of this 90’s classic.
Some viewers have complained about the director’s use of undercranking in filming some of the fight scenes, a process that makes the action appear sped-up. It’s a camera trick that works in this instance, giving the fights a touch more ferocity, and is really no different from the use of the same technique in Errol Flynn’s films to make him appear a better swordsman—an apt comparison, as this is basically a Robin Hood story in a period Chinese setting. Produced by hyper-workaholic filmmaker Tsui Hark.
14. Executioners From Shaolin
Another great production from Shaw Brothers, and yet one more feather in the cap of Lau Kar-Leung, the same man who brought the world The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Invincible Pole Fighter, Executioners From Shaolin is the more-or-less historically based story of the destruction of Shaolin Temple by the Manchu army, led by the evil abbot Pai Mei (a character you might remember form Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2, portrayed here by Lo Lieh, the same actor who played the main hero in Five Fingers of Death).
Much of this is dramatized in an abstract setting that sets the stage for Pai Mei’s seemingly unbeatable kung fu, with which he can trap an opponent’s foot with his groin when they go for a low blow, a result of the invincibility he maintains by flawless control of his chi.
One of the survivors of the massacre, Hung Sze Kuan, goes into hiding, first taking up with a troup of performers who travel by water and getting married to a woman who is a master of the Crane style of kung fu, then settling near enough to Pai Mei’s temple that he can challenge him in a duel to the death with the Tiger style kung fu he has been practicing for a decade. He even goes so far as to construct and train with a bronze dummy outfitted with metal ball bearings that roll along channels representing key acupressure points so he can better attack Pai Mei’s vital areas.
His wife advises him to combine his Tiger kung fu with her Crane style, but he refuses. When he goes to confront Pai Mei, things don’t go well: the abbot can move his most vulnerable point about his body at will, making it nearly impossible to strike, and he defeats Hung. However, Hung’s young son, who has observed and practiced his father’s Tiger style as well as the Crane style his mother taught him, goes to avenge his father, and by combining the two forms and jumping onto Pai Mei’s shoulders so he can strike at the top of his head (where his weakest point happens to be), he kills the old master.
A fun and exciting blend of comedy and grim combat, Executioners From Shaolin stands as a bona fide classic of old-school Shaw Brothers kung fu cinema, and though it isn’t the best of Lau Kar-Leung’s films, it’s still well above most of the slew of kung fu movies from the Seventies.
Lau seems to have learned a lot from his mentor Chang Cheh, showing the same predilection for weird set pieces and strange props—that bronze acupressure statue is one of the more bizarre things to turn up in a kung fu movie. But he proves himself, I think, to be the better filmmaker, using superior camerawork and having a stronger sense of story pacing.
13. Fearless aka Jet Li’s Fearless
Stylishly directed by veteran Ronny Yu and with fights by (who else?) Yuen Woo-Ping, Fearless belongs in the top bracket of all-time great Jet Li movies. He appears every bit as agile and lightning-fast as he ever was, and the pacing (at least in the shorter cuts—some run as long as 140 minutes) never bogs down with needless side tracks in the story.
Is it the finest of Li’s fight films? Possibly not, but it’s one of the slickest-looking, packed full of great fights and, and has the distinction of being the very last wushu-based action movie of Li’s career, meaning it’s the last to show him using classical kung fu onscreen, mainly because he felt the violence of those films ran counter to his Buddhist beliefs and gave the practice of kung fu a bad name by showing it in such a combative, nasty light (the aversion to gratuitous violence didn’t keep him out of the Expendables trilogy, it’s important to note).
He obviously wanted to cap off his wushu filmography on a high note by portraying martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia, a man known for squaring off against foreign fighters in the interest of reinvigorating the reputation of Chinese martial arts.
In the film he is an arrogant young man whose incredible aptitude in kung fu leads him to believe he’s undefeatable. Mislead by another’s lies, he challenges and kills an older master, an act that ends in his own wife and child being murdered. He leaves town broken and consumed with guilt.
Taken in by and old woman and her blind daughter, he eventually learns the compassion and mercy he had scoffed at in earlier days. He goes home restored, and begins taking on other fighters in public contests, including a European boxer and, in a final tournament, a Spanish fencer and Japanese swordsman, among others. It’s the Japanese opponent who proves his undoing, when the man’s cohorts poison Huo’s tea in order to win the fight. But even in death, Huo is regarded by all as the true champion.
12. Magnificent Butcher
Not long after the success of Drunken Master, Yuen Woo-Ping attempted the same feat in this story with Sammo Hung in the role of Butcher Wing, a student of Wong Fei-Hung’s (played here by actor Kwan Tak-Hing, who portrayed the character upwards of 80 times in films going as far back as the 1940’s—he holds the record for playing the same character more times than any actor).
After his long-lost brother’s wife is kidnapped by the son of an expert in the Cosmic Palm style of kung fu, Wing goes to rescue her with the help of Beggar So (played by Fan Mei Sheng, as Yuen’s father Yuen Siu Tien had died of a heart attack before production), taking with them the master’s god-daughter as well, thinking her to also be a prisoner. The son later tracks them down and assaults his sister, killing her in the process.
He also finds Wing’s brother and sister-in-law and stabs his brother to death out of spite. Enraged, Wing goes after the man as he parties with friends, and beats him dead with his brother’s funeral plaque. When the master of the Cosmic Palm learns his son has been killed by Butcher Wing, a student of his rival Wong Fei-Hung, he challenges him to a fight in the street, forcing Wing to call on the Iron Fist style taught to him by Beggar So to win the day.
For my money, Sammo Hung was a stronger screen performer at this time than Jackie Chan, with a broader dramatic range and, in some ways, a better comic persona. He’s the Jackie Gleason of martial arts movies, a heavyset actor of surprising speed and grace. It’s unfortunate his star never rose as high as Jackie Chan’s outside of Asia. Nevertheless, of the films directed by Yuen Woo-Ping in the Seventies, this is probably the best one, with fast-paced, inventive fight scenes, good production values, and a fun performance from Hung and Chan’s fellow Peking Opera alum Yuen Biao.
11. Fist of Legend
Jet Li and Yuen Woo-Ping lend their formidable skills to this remake the Bruce Lee classic The Chinese Connection (known as Fist of Fury in some markets) and you know something? They outdid that movie in just about every way. As iconic a figure as Bruce Lee is, Jet Li is obviously a superior onscreen martial artist, and his abilities, paired with the top-drawer action direction of Yuen Woo-Ping, make for the world’s kung fu fanatics as superb a fight film as any produced in the 1990’s.
The story concerns Li as a student in Japan in the 30’s returning to China after he receives news of his master’s death. China is under Japanese occupation, and the death of his master occurred during a match with a Japanese karate expert. It becomes apparent that poisoning was involved, sending Li off on a mission to find and punish the culprit. In the meantime, he and the master’s son Huo Ting-En (played by Chin Siu-Ho) vie for leadership of their martial arts school.
After hearing of the two men’s exploits, and wishing to shut the school down for good, a vicious Japanese general with incredible karate expertise challenges Huo to a duel, the end result of which requires Li to step in and call on every fighting skill he has learned to beat the bigger, stronger opponent.
Though this film was directed by Gordon Chan, it works thanks to the efforts of Yuen and Li (and maybe a little help from the other amazing performers). All in all, hardly any living director and action choreographer has had a hand in more consistently good martial arts movies than Yuen Woo-Ping. Also noteworthy are the many respectful nods to Bruce Lee.
Jet Li’s character has studied both kung fu and karate, and advocates a fluid approach to martial arts that reflects Lee’s philosophy of Jeet Kune Do. His fighting style is even patterned somewhat after Lee’s, switching from classic kung fu to karate and Western boxing. Tough and gritty, this is among the finest movies in Jet Li’s filmography.