Donnie Yen looked all set to break into the mainstream a few years ago. He did everything right, had a sizable hit on his own, proved he could play the role of supporting badass in a mainstream movie, gave another great supporting turn in an art house favorite, and in the meantime squared off against two legends of the genre and walked away both times after making one hell of an impression.
But for whatever reason it never really happened. The flashier (and markedly crazier) Tony Jaa ended up stealing his thunder as the next big thing in martial arts, and Yen himself never really found the right role to sell his persona to Western audiences the way that Jet Li and Jackie Chan did (the various ways in which Western filmmakers have misused and occasionally out and out abused those persona’s being the subject of another longer, sadder essay).
Now half a decade later Donnie Yen is back, and while it is unlikely that The Ip Men series will catapult him to the western popularity that he once seemed destined for, they serve as near perfect vehicles for him, and prove what a solid and underutilized presence he is.
Ip Man follows Donnie Yen as the titular character. A well respected martial artist who defeated Japanese Martial Arts and regained the honor of The Chinese during the Japanese Invasion of China during World War II (a curiously under explored topic in cinema given the wealth of material and just how totally nearly every other angle in World War II has been covered). Of course even a cursory Wikipedia search will show that Ninety Five percent of the movie is complete and utter horseshit. There was a rich, well liked guy nick named Ip Man who lived in China around that time- and that is about where the similarities between him and the character Yen plays stop. But it’s a fun legend and the character it gives Yen to play, paternal, soft spoken, gracious and uncomplicated is seemingly tailor made for him.
The film is divided neatly into two parts, the first showcasing Ip man in the halcyon period of martial arts in China, prior to the invasion of Japan. It’s almost like watching two short films instead of one feature length one, but this actually works for the movie. Increasing its folklore feel.
The martial arts choreography is all by Sammo Hung one of the most solid and underrated choreographers in Martial Arts cinema. He may never have choreographed a fight as flashy as a Wu Yuen Ping display, but his practical training in martial arts always shines through. His fight scenes not only feel authentically like something a martial artist could do, but they trade on a genuine sense of the art that is impossible to fake. Not simply repeating the same tired steps they’re based on innovation and improvisation.
Ip Man may not reinvent the wheel, but it’s the type of film that reminds you of just how dependable The Martial Arts film is. A good man with a worthy cause up against injustice with only the skills he has given himself to rely upon. That is a good story no matter how many times it is told.