East beats West and kung fu reigns supreme in the entertaining, pro-Sino martial-arts biopic “Ip Man 2.” Pic marks Donnie Yen’s second outing as the Wing Chun master who trained kung fu legend Bruce Lee in what just may become a Chinese franchise. Production package is a faithful though stage-bound recreation of 1950s Hong Kong, but abundant chopsocky action ensures auds won’t be looking at the scenery. Released in late April to boffo biz in Chinese territories ($15 million in China, $3 million in Hong Kong), sequel looks set to surpass its popular predecessor. Fanboy ancillary will be robust.
Where the first film was set around WWII and the Japanese occupation of China, the sequel begins in 1950 Hong Kong, where tea-sipping Wing Chun Master Ip (Yen) has set up a martial-arts school. As word of his prowess spreads, Ip finds his brand of martial arts faces opposition from the coterie of established schools who pay protection money to the territory’s English police force.
Pic’s highlight is Ip’s solo, unarmed battle against an army of machete-wielding students from rival schools at Hong Kong’s fish market. This invigorating setpiece serves as a prelude to a public contest between Ip and rival teacher Master Hung (vet thesp Sammo Hung, also the film’s action director). Witnessed by Hong Kong’s martial-arts elders and students in a Chinese tea room, the fight takes place upon a vast, circular (and unsteady) tabletop with defeat coming to the first contestant to hit the floor. Like all the preceding action sequences, the tournament maintains an enjoyable balance between entertainment and lightweight drama.
A darker tone emerges in the final reels, depicting a brutal climactic public tournament between Ip and an arrogant champion English boxer (Darren Shahlavi). “Ip Man’s” returning helmer Wilson Yip increases the blood quotient during a fight to the death that pits martial arts against Western pugilism, as the script cribs from the nationalistic sentiment manifested in the American-vs.-Russian boxing match in”Rocky 4.”
Yip’s direction is workmanlike in dramatic scenes, but his favoring of closeups for fight scenes creates an intimacy that makes every blow feel authentic.
Yen looks comfortable in the title role, and Hung brings great dignity to the role of his affronted rival. A cameo by Simon Yam as a brain-damaged survivor of the earlier WWII-set film is well performed but adds little — other than Yam’s local star power — to the proceedings. In contrast, an overacting Shahlavi continues the long tradition of poor English-language thesping in Asian film.
Combination of Kenneth Mak’s somewhat stagy sets and rich colors used by lenser Poon Hang-sang echoes with affection the heyday of Hong Kong’s martial-arts film.