The Iron-Fisted Monk
(San de huo shang yu chong mi liu) (1977)
Directed by Sammo Hung

Artistic Value: * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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Having studied martial arts at the Shaolin Monastery, Husky Joe (Sammo Hung), a pugnacious young man who resents Ch'ing rule of China, arrives in a town being oppressed by a gang of corrupt Manchus and quickly becomes involved in helping the locals fight against these brutal, dissolute fiends.

Although Sammo Hung's The Iron-Fisted Monk may not be especially sophisticated or even always competently made, it is entertaining nonetheless.

The story the director tells is very loosely structured, but it is so fast paced and so filled with action set pieces that it is consistently involving. What is more, Hung has incorporated a number of harsh, even jarring moments which are likely to affect or, at the least, intrigue many viewers. The movie's heroes thus suffer real tragedies and some of them actually die. For example, one man's sister is viciously raped by the leader of the Manchus, who later kills most of this same person's family and slaughters a whole group of villagers.

Such themes are complemented by the fight sequences the director has included, which are among the most enjoyable I have seen in any film. Sammo Hung himself leaps through the air, performs numerous astonishing feats, and demonstrates real agility while taking on his opponents, who include one of his instructors at the Shaolin Monastery, a group of Manchus he encounters in a brothel, and the leader of the Manchus ruling the town in which most of the story is set. Fortunately, Hung is not the only performer who is given the opportunity to show off his skills at martial arts. Those playing the movie's villains are as well, and several of these persons are particularly fun to watch. In various battles, one of these scoundrels cracks his opponents' skulls with a metal ball attached to a chain, another pierces his foes' necks with his fingers, and still others demonstrate their swordsmanship.

Regrettably, the film's other elements are not consistent in quality. The acting is, more often than not, so atrocious that it is actually amusing, and the dull score and overdone characters are both entirely forgettable. The movie's production values are, however, surprisingly high. The Iron-Fisted Monk does, consequently, successfully evoke a bygone age throughout most of its duration.

While it is never inspired, and is burdened by its amorphous narrative, exaggerated characterizations, and frequently clumsy acting, The Iron-Fisted Monk's thrilling action sequences and dark themes make it a real joy to watch.

Review by Keith Allen

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