Following the events of “Ip Man,” Donnie Yen stars in the sequel, subtitled “Legend Of The Grandmaster.” And aside from a few cosmetic changes, you won’t get much variation. Not that this is a bad thing: the “Ip Man” films follow the legendary martial artist of the title who pioneered the art of Wing Chun, which is not the semi-popular New Wave band of the 1980’s who famously scored “To Live And Die In L.A.” but in fact a popular martial art that Ip Man spread across the globe.
Of course, Ip Man’s greatest contribution to American pop culture until now as been as the man who trained Bruce Lee. As a result, because we didn’t see Lee in the first film, and because he’s not in the beginning of this one, we’re to assume that Ip Man makes it out of the scrums where his skills place him. The formula of the film, while based in historical fact, does seem to echo the framework of the first film. In “Ip Man,” our hero was trying to navigate a world being undermined by a pretty villainous Japanese occupation. In the sequel, his family moves to Hong Kong where, in the 1950s, the enemy is now the nefarious British rule. Essentially, Ip Man the Chinese hero has to defeat the honor-less interloper. It’s not a bad place to start from, for your martial arts epic.
The fights in “Ip Man” were mostly balletic one-on-ones, building to a huge action climax deflated by history, as science taught us what the movie reinforced, which is that fists cannot defeat bullets. But the sequel, from returning director Wilson Yip, ups the ante repeatedly, staging several elaborate group fight scenes, a couple of which find Ip Man dismantling entire gangs without much breaking a sweat, his pacifist perspective forcing him to actually pull his punches.
In the pantheon of superb modern martial artists from Hong Kong, Donnie Yen can easily be grouped with Jackie Chan and Jet Li in terms of being skilled, cinematic and prolific. While Chan has a performer’s charm and elaborate physicality, Jet Li’s main weapon seems to be ugly brute force, a compelling contrast for his smallish frame. Yen, however, relies on speed, and there are moments in “Ip Man 2” where it’s almost as if the film is being played back at a faster speed, as if Yen was shattering the laws of physics. Physically, he’s a dynamo, and the improved hand-to-hand sequences utilize his improvisational ability to nearly be in two places at the same time.
Yen isn’t the only legend in the film: portly Sammo Hung shows up as a local fighter who demands Ip Man pay dues before he fulfills his dream and properly opens a school for martial arts. Hung, who found success in America with the semi-popular CBS show “Martial Law,” is considerably older than his contemporaries; watching his duet film with Jackie Chan, “Wheels On Meals,” one is surprised that the hefty but lithe troublemaker (who matched Chan goof for goof) is still moving today. But aided by some minimal wirework, Hung still has the skill and agility to almost match Yen blow for blow. What’s more, his age has given him some gravitas, allowing his character arc to seem human.
All those elements are a nice contrast to the simplistic, marginalized tone of the rest of the film. The threat of local gangs is soon replaced by the mustache-twirling Brits, who employ a gargantuan bruiser to compete with the Chinese citizens, scoffing at their “Chinese boxing.” The deck is stacked of course to allow for the film’s more superficial elements to take prominence — the nationalist streak that runs through “Ip Man 2” pretty much pits you wholeheartedly against the British. “The King’s Speech” fans needs not apply.
Ip Man himself is a standard martial arts hero. Stoic and respectful to a fault, he nonetheless jumps into action when he sees his country, and its people, threatened. Yen plays everything straight and sincere, and is a capable enough actor that, even though Ip Man is the most talented martial artist present, his uncertainty feels real. So while the film is piling up ass-kickings, Yen is convincing as a man who really is employing the last resort. You don’t have to be a martial arts fan to appreciate the surprising depth of Yen’s performance, but it certainly helps. [B-]