Iron Monkey Strikes Back (1978)
Director: Pao Hsueh Li
Writers: Chin Shu Mei
Starring: Chen Kuan Tai, Chen Sing and Judy Lee

The Plot: When the emperor is replaced with a impostor, his wife is defiled and then murdered by this nefarious criminal in hiding. Soon enough, the real emperor arrives back home only to find his dead wife. Although he takes the death seemingly in stride, he demands retribution. He asks for the very best inspector in all of the land, and this brings him to Inspector Cool Head (Chen Kuan Tai). Cool Head is quickly solving the case and tracks the murder weapon down to a poor man named Lee San who spends his days looking after his mother. Lee San pleads his innocence, but refuses to tell how his knife arrived at the crime scene, even though it appears that he had loaned it out to someone in the not-too-distant past. The emperor is quick to dismiss this man as the obvious murderer, but Inspector Cool Head has his doubts, and he begins to investigate the surrounding circumstances that have brought this murder to happen. As he looks further and further into the case, the more it seems that Lee San may very well be innocent and the conspiracy to kill this woman could reach some very high and unusual places.

The Review
Chen Kuan Tai is one of those martial arts leading men who didn’t quite break through into mainstream success here in the West, but he was never far off from it. His fans have been persistent throughout the years, and perhaps their fanaticism is part of the reason for his continued success. Indeed, while many of his Shaw Bros. compatriots eventually fell out of popularity completely, Chen Kuan Tai continued to work even throughout the nineties. His best known starring role, however, would obviously be his turn in the unforgettable The Iron Monkey. A brilliant martial arts epic of sorts, it is one of the main films to inspire the monkey-style Kung Fu craze that martial art film fans have developed throughout the years. While Iron Monkey Strikes Back may have a title that implies some form of direct sequel, this movie is far from it. In no way a continuation of The Iron Monkey, Iron Monkey Strikes Back is instead a conspiratorial Kung Fu thriller that relies less on gimmickry, and instead focuses on narrative and plot progression in order to make the film interesting.

Chen Kuan Tai essentially plays the Serpico within our film. Although he isn’t surrounded by a number of crooked police officers, though there is a little bit of that, he is simply a police officer who refuses to play the political game. Similar to any number of great cop characters in the past, he is adamant about following the book no matter whose feathers this might ruffle. Chen plays the character with stoicism and a very upright demeanor. Although, as a actor, he could get pretty nasty when he needed to, but Chen could also play a very Ti Lung-esque superhero of sorts when necessary. He was often tapped to play villains in many of his roles, but he had a very underrated range when it came to his acting talents. Iron Monkey Strikes Back doesn’t call for him to delve deep like Marlon Brando, but he most certainly fleshes out a very defined character within the movie. This Inspector Cool Head character, who has the worst name in all of Kung Fu film history, is essentially a two-dimensional character of sorts. There is no grey area with the character, as he does everything for the sake of honor and righteousness, but even though this may come across as a slightly vanilla concept, Chen Kuan Tai’s rugged facial features and masculine charisma sell the performance.

Judy Lee is another strong female from the short list of talented female martial artists presented in film during the seventies. Although women such as Yukari Oshima, Moon Lee and Michelle Yeoh would later capitalize on the foundation that these women established, it was in these early outings that female empowerment was given some room to stretch out and become established within the martial world. Lee’s character here is presented as a martial artist who is just a bit lower on the totem pole than Chen Kuan Tai’s magnificent Cool Head, but the fight sequence that these two share is quite entertaining. I was a bit disappointed that her character didn’t get to impress Chen’s character a bit more, but overall she gets to make up for it by beating up on several other lackeys using her trusty flute. She, along with her two sisters in the film, adds another dimension that tends to also separate this movie from being yet another average Kung Fu title. Although Lee’s fight scenes rarely become more than decent, she has a charisma and strength to her character that is rarely seen in performers of any sex. Able to move from demure and feminine right to strong and brazen, the young actress puts in a interesting performance that solidifies the movie in many ways.

The movie definitely moves along at a very brisk pace. The Kung Fu mystery and suspense are kept at full tilt, but the mix of action with the narrative turns out to be plentiful. The narrative itself sometimes borders upon meandering at times, but just as soon as the audience starts to become bored, the movie sucks them back in. Although, for the most part, Kung Fu mysteries are usually fairly easy to solve for the audience, Iron Monkey Strikes Back actually proves to be a very well-told story that doesn’t pander to its audience. Sure, we know right from the start that the emperor isn’t on the up-and-up, but as the movie presses along we are surprised to see just how all of this treachery has come about. A surprisingly well configured bit of intrigue, this proves to be one of the more engaging bits of Kung Fu storytelling that I have seen in quite a while. Despite the film appearing in the guise of a total ripoff produced by IFD films (home of Godfrey Ho), this is actually a well made and surely entertaining bit of martial arts cinema.

The Conclusion
Iron Monkey Strikes Back may have nothing to do with Chen Kuan Tai’s Iron Monkey character, nor does it have anything to do with any person striking back, but it is a fairly nice bit of Kung Fu entertainment. I won’t overplay this one, because the quality of the release is far from exceptional and it does deter from some of its entertainment value. Also, it does meander a little bit before grabbing its audience. I wrestled with giving the movie a four out of five, which is a excellent rating, but instead decided to go with the safer vote of three. With that said, keep an eye out for this one because it features one of the most brutal and brilliant final battles you will ever see. Chen Kuan Tai and Chen Sing battle in a epic ten minute long struggle that culminates in plenty of bloodshed. Definitely worth a watch!