Warning: This review may contain traces of spoilers, and may have come into contact with spoilers from other movies.
Ip Man is a semi-biographical martial arts film that chronicles the life of Ip Man (Donnie Yen) – one of China’s most famous historical martial arts masters (and Bruce Lee’s mentor), and the first master to teach the martial art Wing Chun. Set against the backdrop of the Chinese village of Foshan in the 1930’s, Ip Man depicts the life of the titular character as his village, the hub of southern Chinese martial arts, is invaded by the Japanese and he is forced to work as a coolie in a coal mine. After one of his friends is killed by the maniacal Japanese colonel Miura, Ip Man has had enough drudgery and accepts an open challenge by Miura to fight any martial artist who dares oppose him. By easily defeating ten of the colonel’s men, Ip Man finds an enemy in the colonel, who is determined to beat Ip in a one-on-one fight that will determine the fate of Ip Man, his family, and maybe the entire province!
Let’s get down to brass tacks here. The biggest draw of any martial arts film is the quality of the fight sequences. Even martial arts movies with ridiculous plots, like The Magnificent Butcher, Chinese Super Ninjas, The Crippled Masters, or Knockabout can make for terrific viewing if the fight scenes are good. And while the plot material in Ip Man is quality stuff – the classic conflict of the peaceful warrior is featured prominently here, and it works terrifically – the real meat of this movie is in the fight scenes. They are nothing short of spectacular. Watching Ip Man, I was totally awestruck at how fast Donnie Yen can move, and I honestly have a hard time believing that none of the fights were sped up. One particular move that Yen performs, a sort of flurry of blows, will have even the most jaded viewer amazed at how fast his fists can fly.
The choreography for Ip Man was done by martial arts legend Sammo Hung, and if you’ve ever seen Hung doing his thing in any of his starring roles (the aforementioned The Magnificent Butcher and Knockabout both feature great performances by Hung), you can see how his experience with fight work shines through in every combat. The fights all flow like perfectly timed dance sequences, making this movie a treat for fans of the chop-socky genre.
Beyond the fight scenes, this movie is pretty standard large-budget martial arts movie fare. I was reminded a lot of the Jet Li film Fearless, another martial arts film about a historical figure, set a few decades prior to Ip Man. One problem that both Ip Man and Fearless suffer from is a lack of plot direction. Being semi-biographical films, they don’t have much of an arc to their stories, which can make certain parts drag. This isn’t a major complaint, as you never have to wait too long before an awesome fight breaks out, but it does mean that certain elements feel disjointed when compared to films that aren’t based on someone’s life story. One tripping point for me in Ip Man is when the villain, colonel Miura, only shows up an hour into the film, completely unannounced prior to his appearence. By not introducing him sooner (and maybe it wasn’t feasible to), we aren’t as invested in Ip Man defeating Miura as we were when he was kicking the asses of a group of Northerners who challenge him to a fight (lead by Fan Siu Wong – best known for his performance in the legendary Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky).
Ip Man is a great martial arts movie. The production values are top notch, and Donnie Yen is a joy to watch as he kicks everyone’s asses. The fight scenes are plentiful and a martial arts enthusiast’s delight. The plot, while interesting, does plod a little here and there, but it’s not a big deal. I’d happily recommend this to anyone who likes a good martial arts picture. If you’re not a fan of the genre, there’s nothing for you here. I really haven’t got much to say beyond that, except that I can’t wait to watch the sequel, if only to see Yen’s fists fly again.
3.5 out of 5