Let me start this review with a disclaimer: I have not seen the first Ip Man movie. There are several reasons for me pointing this out from the get-go, not the least of which being that when I say, "Ip Man 2 is easily one of the best Donnie Yen movies I've ever seen," I won't be inundated with people asking me, "Better than the first Ip Man?" Honestly, I don't know if Ip Man 2 is better than Ip Man. And when I say that Ip Man 2 is one of the best Donnie Yen movies I've ever seen, I'm not saying that it is the absolute best--just one of the best. Yen has been in some awesome movies, including Iron Monkey, Wing Chun and Hero, and for my money, Ip Man 2 ranks right up there with those films.
The second reason I'm letting you all know that I haven't seen the first Ip Man is to let you know that it doesn't really matter. At first I was a bit worried--will Ip Man 2 make any sense if I haven't seen Ip Man? Because, you know nothing sucks more than when you're watching the sequel to a movie you haven't seen, and you keep asking yourself questions like "Why do they need to throw the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom?" But this isn't one of those movies. You don't need to see Ip Man to understand or appreciate Ip Man 2.
After an opening title sequence that basically recaps the events of the first film, Ip Man 2 opens in 1950s Hong Kong. Our hero has relocated to the British colony with his family in the years following World War II. With no money and not much more in the way of prospects, Ip Man (Yen) opens his own martial arts school, hoping to teach Wing Chun. Things don't exactly take off, and it's looking pretty bleak for our hero, his pregnant wife and their young son, but soon Ip Man has his first student, the arrogant and eager-to-fight Leung (Xiaoming Huang), who brings along his gang of friends. Soon, Ip Man is running a successful kung-fu school--even though most of his students can't pay him. Things get a bit complicated when Leung runs afoul of a gang from another kung-fu school, and soon Ip Man is at odds with Master Hong (Sammo Hung), the master of a rival school, and the kingpin of Hong Kong martial arts. Of course the real enemy--as we will soon discover--are the devilish foreigner gweilo. Most notable among the evil white men are the corrupt and sadist officer in the Hong Kong police department who is shaking down Master Hong, and the even more sadistic boxer Twister (Darren Shahlavi), who has a penchant for beating Chinese to death in the ring.
Ip Man 2 follows in the grand tradition of other classic Hong Kong action films by talking real-life people and turning their lives into epic action films. It has been a successful model for folk heroes like Wong Fei-hung, Huo Yuanjia and Fong Sai-yuk, who have been the inspiration for some of the most memorable films in the history of Asian action flicks. Ip Man 2 is one of what promises to be a growing number of films about the master of Wing Chun known by many in the United States as Bruce Lee's instructor. I'd like to think Hong Kong producers would quit while they're ahead, but with more than one hundred films about Wong Fei-hung, it doesn't seem likely.
Never venturing far from the conventions and clichés that define this particular genre of kung-fu film, Ip Man 2 succeeds nearly straight across the board as a solidly entertaining movie--even if we have seen most of the material countless times before. The film works for a combination of reasons, first and foremost being the tandem combination of Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, who more important than his co-starring status is the film's action director/choreographer. Yen has been a player in Hong Kong cinema since the 1980s, but didn't really start coming into his own until the early 1990s. Unfortunately for Yen, Jackie Chan was still reigning supreme and Jet Li had just started his ascent to stardom. Although he made a name for himself in Asian cinema, to American audiences Yen remained largely in the shadows, despite appearances in films like Shanghai Knights and Blade II. Over the years he had developed into a versatile actor capable of both action and leading man roles, and recently he has finally stepped out into the spotlight. Ip Man 2 (and I'm sure Ip Man as well) showcases Yen at his best. He gives a restrained performance as the soft-spoken martial arts master, but his action scenes are incredible--the type that will have you reaching for the remote control to press the rewind button.
Along with Yen, the success of Ip Man 2 owes much to veteran actor/director/choreographer Sammo Hung. Fans of Hong Kong action cinema know Hung as the portly yet incredibly nimble asskicker who has starred in such memorable films as Eastern Condors, Dragons Forever and Magnificent Butcher. But Hung has also worked on a long list of films as both director and action director, and has a reputation as being one of the best action choreographers in the business. His talent is evident in Ip Man 2, while at the same time blending seamlessly with that of director Wilson Yip.
Ip Man 2 is a highly entertaining film that features solid performances by the entire cast, and delivers a series of well-executed action sequences. The action scenes alone are enough to warrant watching the movie, but thanks to a solid script, quality direction and a great performance by Donnie Yen, Ip Man 2 has earned its status as required viewing for kung-fu fans.