IP MAN 2: LEGEND OF THE GRANDMASTER finds the eponymous master newly landed in Hong Kong after the turmoil of his escape from Japanese-occupied Foshan. While the film as a whole is a graceful, yet lethal, dig at chauvinism as well as imperialism, that is no impediment to it also being both an engrossing drama and a dynamic martial-arts flick.
Donnie Yen returns as Ip, now a refugee with a small child and a pregnant wife depending on him. His dream of starting a marital arts school runs into many snags, including a dearth of students who perceive his Wing Chun form of combat as somehow girlish. A perception that is not helped when his first prospective student does finally arrive and Ip is helping his landlady hang the wash. Not an auspicious beginning, but after a sound thrashing delivered with good humor by Ip, the nascent school builds a band of loyal students. From there, though, Ip must convince the other schools in the area that he is worthy to be a master, forcing him into a face off with Hung (Sammo Hung, who also choreographed the action), and from there a pivotal match with Twister (Darren Shahlavi), the world boxing champion, that is about much more than just who is the better fighter.
Yen reprises his role as Ip blending calm assurance and unruffled focus during matches, making his technique all the more impressive than those, Chinese or Occidental, who indulge in showboating. He makes the inner stillness riveting. The blazing action is mixed with healthy doses of sentimentality, both of which Yen handles with aplomb. An action star of impeccable pedigree, he is also an actor of considerable power, particularly when he pulls back, making the small moments as satisfying as the kick-ass ones and for much the same reason. He make Ip a character of high moral fiber, but one with a puckish personality, capable of great warmth as well as great commitment to his ideals. There is nothing somber but everything serious about his one-word answer to a studentís question about how to take on 10 armed men at one time. Flee. Ip is a hero, but heís a sensible one.
Not so Twister, the snarling British boxer with more muscle than brains and more attitude than sense. The character is a caricature, to be sure, but Shahlavi makes of him a being of such pure primal rage barely contained by the hulking boxerís frame that he is grotesquely fascinating. No character aside from Ip is particularly complicated, though Hungís fealty, and that of his cohort, the aptly named Fatso (Kent Cheng) to the imperious British functionary with a penchant for shadowy deals has its own twists.
None of this would matter much if the action were dull. Itís not. Hungís choreography and his imagination are inimitable; the cinematography is flawless throughout. A giant fish market becomes the giant stage for gang war. The art is distilled brilliantly using the confines of a tabletop, unattached to the supporting legs, as the stage for the set-to between Ip and Hung. Balancing and whirling as the table tips and rocks, there is more action than seems reasonable considering the limitations, yet its action that builds from a thunderous start to a jaw-dropping crescendo.
Itís easy to forgive IP MAN 2: LEGEND OF THE GRANDMASTER straying into melodrama. Taken as a whole, it mixes history and myth into a heartfelt effort that doesnít sacrifice substance for style.