The first Ip Man (Wilson Yip, 2008), which I saw for the first time at last year’s Fantasia Festival, was a welcome throwback to the old kung fu master films of my youth, like Jet Lee’s Once upon a time in China (Tsui Hark, 1991), Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978) and the myriad of Shaw Bros. films. I remember how, living in Haiti, the national television station used to broadcast martial arts films back to back on Saturdays. We never knew their names and their storylines were, for the most part, interchangeable, but we would spend the whole day watching them and then, come Monday, try to emulate the moves on the playground at school. Ip Man reminded me of those films but, with its close-up brutal fight scenes, was a modern monster.
Ip Man 2 offers more of the same. There’s no real narrative or aesthetic innovation in this one except bigger stakes all around, as in Sammo Hung’s elaborate fight scenes. It’s a pleasure to see Sammo Hung this time in front of the camera as Hong Kong’s corrupt grand kung fu Master Hung Quan, knowing that, as the film’s fight scene choreographer, he’s the architect behind every punch and kick. Donnie Yen has a serene demeanour to him, at times the calmness of a closed body of water, contemplative, simple and brings much to the character of the earnest master. But the simplistic situations, even more so here than in the first film, the fights between martial arts school, first against kung fu schools, then against a western boxer, feel contrived and forced.
The death of the rival-turned-comrade which springs the hero into action is a plot device used and abused in fighting films. The example of Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985) comes to mind with the death of Apollo, Rocky’s former rival, serving as the catalyst to the grandiose final fight scene with Drago, a steroid-enhanced (Cold War) Russian with superior strength and unlimited resources, a device used in the previous Rocky. But the most exasperating has to be the introduction of Bruce Lee into the narrative but in a way that was unnecessary to the film, as a gratuitous bonus to the audience.
As popular fare go, it isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel, especially when the audience is expecting you not to, but I was left with the feeling that Ip Man 2 didn’t have a reason for existing, except to cash in on the success of the first one. And that’s always a mistake.
More info on IMDB