2008’s “Ip Man” is one of the best martial arts movies you’ll see in the last 10 years, a film that all but cemented Donnie Yen’s crown as the new kung fu king of Hong Kong cinema. 2010’s “Ip Man 2” is a get rich quick scheme, and that’s me being very generous. The film’s one big success story is that it actually allows star Donnie Yen to expand on his acting chops. Somewhat. I’m not saying Yen has become Tony Leung or Chow Yun Fat overnight, but he seems to have understood that his character has aged since the first movie, and it shows here. Then again, who the hell watches a Donnie Yen movie for acting? Don’t get me wrong, there are a couple of entertaining bits here and there, but overall, the sequel is 110 minutes of rehashed plotlines and wasted opportunity. When Donnie Yen fighting 20 guys in a fish market makes you yawn, something is very wrong.
After the events of the first movie, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) travels to Hong Kong with his family, including young son and pregnant wife (Lynn Hung). Ip, as I like to call him, is intent on opening his school and propagating Wing Chun to the Hong Kong masses. Alas, he faces difficulties, and never you mind that this is the same guy who famously and nearly single-handedly defeated the Japanese Army (if the first movie is to be believed), but no one in Hong Kong even knows who he is. Wha…? You would think his exploits would get around, but apparently not so much. In any case, our hero is stuck in neutral (or as the kids call it, he’s dirt poor), with his pregnant wife henpecking him to, you know, become successful or something. He’s opened a rooftop school, but has no students. It’s so bad, the lady downstairs uses his school to hang her laundry.
Then one day a street punk name Wong Leung (Xiaoming Huang) wanders onto the roof, demanding to spar with Ip. The brash youth loses, of course, and soon Ip’s school has found itself a dozen or so students made up of Leung and his street buddies. Unfortunately being mostly homeless, the boys can’t all pay the tuition, much to the chagrin of Ip’s wife. But students incapable of paying tuition fees are the least of Ip’s problems: Hong Kong is home to a variety of martial arts schools, led by the toughest master of them all, Hung (Sammo Hung, also the film’s action director). These old guys and their students (but mostly just Hung’s students) are making Ip’s life pretty miserable. This all leads to Ip facing all the masters for the right to teach. Meanwhile, there are other problems soon to confront our hero. While the Japanese have been soundly defeated in WWII, Hong Kong is ruled by the crass and bullying British. Can you say, “Wait, isn’t this the entire plot of the first movie?” Why, yes, it is.
Of course, by the time the Evil White Men rear their evil white heads, Ip has resolved his issues with his fellow Chinese masters. Although his fight with Sammo Hung, one of the film’s main selling points, ends in a draw (though come on, we know who really won that one, right, Master Hung?), Ip has moved on with his school and being poor. (In case you were wondering, it sucks to be poor, especially with a pregnant wife.) But that’s only the first hour of “Ip Man 2”, with the film’s final 40 minutes saved for some rah-rah Chinese jingoism as the might of the entire Hong Kong martial arts community (okay, pretty much just Hung and Ip Man) focuses their energies on defeating loudmouth British boxing champ Twister, played by Hong Kong veteran stuntman Darren Shahlavi. It goes without saying that the Brits are simply replacements for the Japanese villains of the first movie, and screenwriter Edmond Wong, who also penned the first “Ip Man”, doesn’t even bother to offer up one sympathetic token white guy, though the screenwriter did take the time to lift scenes from “Rocky IV”. Amusingly, Shahlavi’s character is simply called Twister throughout the movie, kinda like Madonna.
If you’ve already seen the first “Ip Man”, then I won’t have to tell you that the sequel is basically a rehash of the first movie’s major plot points, with Ip Man vs. the various masters in the first half, then Ip Man vs. Bullying Foreigners in the second half. Heck, they even threw in a colluding Chinese character that does the bidding of the Big Bad Brits just to make sure the script was lazy enough. The sequel features other characters from the first movie, including Simon Yam, who is mostly wasted in a throwaway role, though admittedly Simon Yam wolfing down a whole leg of chicken and looking crazy as his character pops up sporadically throughout the movie is pretty funny stuff. More memorable is Siu-Wong Fan, now playing a reformed Good Samaritan who assists Ip Man’s efforts in Hong Kong. In the grand ol tradition of Chinese cinema where the local folk hero must battle on behalf of the entire Chinese populace versus a foreign power, the Third Act where Ip Man takes on the entire British Empire in Hong Kong is played with hilarious earnestness.
Frankly, the lack of ambition or creativity in “Ip Man 2” is downright insulting. With pretty much every component of the first movie back – star, director, and writer – it’s unconscionable that the sequel would be so by-the-numbers and uninspired. Even the much-heralded rematch of Donnie Yen vs. Sammo Hung (they have already tangled once, in more brutal fashion in “Sha Po Lang”, a far superior movie) is not the centerpiece action sequence I had hoped, though it does mark the film’s highlight for me. It’s unfortunate that, by comparison, the whole Twister nonsense goes on for a full 40 minutes, with the Brit pitting his pugilist skills against kung fu. It might have been novel when Jet Li did it in “Fearless”, but by the time “Ip Man 2” gives it the ol college try, it’s just a poor (and lazy) imitation.
The film is not completely without merit, though. I liked the fact that Donnie Yen seems to be making a concerted effort to do more than just pose and go about the film beating everyone to smithereens. This new Ip Man is not all-powerful, and in fact he takes quite a beating. The character spends a lot of time trying to mend fences and resolve things diplomatically before resorting to his fists of fury. It’s too bad that the action that accompanies this growth in character is so lackluster. Much of the first hour is devoted to fights between schools, with a lot of black eyes and broken collarbones, but nothing that comes close to a fatality. There was probably some germ of an idea with Ip Man’s young protégé Wong Leung that could have been further explored, but whatever it was got lost around the hour mark, which is too bad, because Xiaoming Huang brings some much-needed exuberance to the film. And for those of you waiting for it, yes, a young Bruce Lee eventually shows up in “Ip Man 2”, but you’ll have to wait a pretty long time for it.
I would love nothing more than to recommend “Ip Man 2” to you, but I can’t in good conscious do so. The film is so uninspired as to be insulting. The rehashing of the first movie is unforgiveable enough, but the film’s final 40 minutes is just tedious and laughably scripted. When Western characters are written into Hong Kong movies, hilarity and more than a generous amount of bad acting is expected, but damn, the British villains in “Ip Man 2” has really lowered the bar something awful. If you absolutely must watch Donnie Yen punch people really fast in the face, I would recommend just going back and watching “Ip Man” again. Trust me, you’ll leave more satisfied, even if you’ve already seen it a dozen times. Don’t give your hard-earned money to the makers of “Ip Man 2”, lest you convince them to make more shoddy, lazy products in the future.
Wilson Yip (director) / Edmond Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Ip Man
Lynn Hung … Yong
Simon Yam … Quan
Sammo Hung … Hung
Xiaoming Huang … Wong Leung
Siu-Wong Fan … Jin
Darren Shahlavi … Twister
Jiang Dai-Yan … Bruce Lee