The most amazing special effect in any Donnie Yen movie will always be Donnie Yen. Despite closing in on 50 Yen can easily pass for a man in his 20s, and that’s with his shirt ON - when the shirt comes off, forget about it. The guy looks like an immortal.
Like many in the martial arts world he’s got something of an obsession with Bruce Lee, and in the Ip Man films he portrays the real life Wing Chun grandmaster who taught Lee. The first film, released in 2008, is something of a classic; Yen’s Ip Man is a perfectly humble martial arts master who is forced to use his considerable skills against the invading Japanese in WWII.
The backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China gave Ip Man a feeling of depth and danger - the stakes were high and real. Ip Man 2 suffers slightly from the removal of that threat. Like so many modern Chinese martial arts films, Ip Man was partially a propaganda piece, but the enemy being propagandized against was a pretty sweeping one - Imperial Japan. In Ip Man 2 the propaganda is being brought to bear against boorish outsiders. It’s the white man who is the malevolent threat this time.
The threat presented by the white man is almost exactly the threat presented by Soviet Russia in Rocky IV. There’s an English boxer, Twister, who is so brutal and so badass that he kills a martial arts master in the ring during an exhibition match. To regain honor and to defend Chinese martial arts, Ip Man must get into the ring with Twister, despite having a new baby on the way.
That’s just part of what Ip Man must face in Ip Man 2; he’s relocated his family to Hong Kong, and he finds opening a martial arts school to be difficult and expensive. It’s not helped by the fact that the local martial arts clubs have an exclusionary organization that muscles out newbies, headed by Sammo Hung (who is also the fight choreographer). Can Ip Man overcome not just the white devil but also the corrupt martial artists of Hong Kong?
Yeah, of course, but the fun is in getting there. Ip Man 2 doesn’t have the threat level that Ip Man had (and as such is sort of less engaging), but it feels like the fights have been amped up. There’s more wire work on display here, especially in a series of table-top duels between Ip and the local martial arts grandmasters. The jumping and zooming around starts edging in on wuxia.
There are a number of great fights - one in a fish market between Ip Man, his student and about 100 guys is an all-timer - and the film’s culmination in a severe match in the ring gives it a very different feel from Ip Man. This isn’t a film that’s simply retreading the same ground, and Ip Man 2 feels very much like its own movie. It just doesn’t feel quite as good as the original, which is almost to be expected - I really think Ip Man is one of the best mainstream martial arts movies released in recent years.
Yen is great again in the role of Ip, although this time he’s more of a sad sack. In real life Ip Man’s move to Hong Kong was motivated by an opium addiction, but it’s unexplained in the movie and just comes across as a bad idea. Ip Man, talented as ever, is barely able to make ends meet - something that was tragic in the first film, when living under Japanese occupation rule, but less out of his control this time - and it takes a friend’s death to really get him going. Yen’s endlessly watchable no matter what, though, and he even makes the sad sack Ip Man lovable.
Ip Man 2 ends with a delightfully silly moment where Ip Man meets a 10 year old Bruce Lee; the filmmakers had originally intended to feature the older Lee in the film but legal aspects tripped them up. Yen has said that he sees this as the final Ip Man movie, but I would be game for a third, featuring a teenaged Bruce and building on the slight wuxia feel that crept into this movie. Let’s go completely over the top this time - Ip Man vs the Monkey King, anyone?