For what’s now the world’s fastest-growing superpower, China has had its fair share of turmoil. There was World War II, when Japanese invasions led to atrocities such as the Rape of Nanjing. Then, the 1945 Chinese Civil War triggered a wave of emigration to Hong Kong, as refugees traded violence and chaos for discrimination and disrespect from British occupiers. Through these decades of strife, the people turned to Ip Man, a master of Wing Chun martial arts who proudly defended the honor of his countrymen against foreign assailants.
Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster
American audiences will be more familiar with Man’s acclaimed protégé, Bruce Lee. But “Ip Man 2” is just as visually entertaining as Lee’s classic kung-fu features. Directed by Wilson Yip (“Flash Point”) from a relentless script full of constant conflict by Edmond Wong (“Dragon Tiger Gate”), “Ip Man 2” is a breathtaking, adrenaline-charged thrill-ride, featuring some of the best action sequences to ever come out of Hong Kong.
The film’s secret weapon is veteran fight choreographer Sammo Hung (“Kung Fu Hustle”), who creates a continuous series of technically precise fight scenes, the most intricate of which features dozens of armed assailants in an intricate dance that never seems forced. Instead of the fantastical wire tricks that dominated “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” or the expensive CGI that’s constantly overused by today’s typical action films, Hung brings a simple, blow-by-blow approach to “Ip Man 2.” Under Hung’s guidance, combatants flow against each other in an intricate, violent ballet, resulting in sequences that are eye-grabbing and visceral.
These visually stunning achievements mask a predictable, utterly conventional story that takes a few too many liberties with history and realism. Man (Donnie Yen, “Blade II”) ended the previous film escaping from the Japanese and has now relocated to postwar Hong Kong, where he’s trying to establish himself as a local kung fu instructor. This leads to confrontations with the area’s existing kung fu schools, which are quickly forgotten when a loud, disrespectful British boxer (Darren Shahlavi, “300”), kills a Chinese kung fu master in the ring. Man is then called upon to extract vengeance and stand up to the British occupiers.
To director Yip, it seems as if the story is simply an excuse to watch people punch and kick each other. He executes the script like a video game, as Man lurches forward from objective to objective, successfully neutralizing growing mobs of opponents until he reaches a boss fight. There’s some emotional filler — Man’s wife is pregnant, and due to a bad economy, his students can’t pay their school fees on time — but that’s all glazed over by combat, which is obviously far more important. The film’s version of Hong Kong is as unrealistic and wooden as the Los Angeles of “West Side Story” — everybody in Hong Kong is radically devoted to martial arts, just like everybody in L.A. is a member of two rival gangs. Man often brings up the struggling economy’s toll upon society, but everybody’s money problems could potentially solve themselves if they decided to stop attacking each other and got jobs.
Then again, realism isn’t exactly the point of a Hong Kong-style kung fu picture. In the film world, it doesn’t matter that Man was, in reality, an opium addict, or that he arguably entered teaching to support his habit. It’s the action that fills seats, and on that level, “Ip Man 2” delivers elegantly.