I was on the verge of checking out of Ip Man 2 until Sammo Hung showed up.
I’d just finished a rewatch of the first Ip Man, a modern martial arts classic that’s been a Netflix streaming staple for years. It’s a back-to-basics, stripped down kung fu movie, with no wire fu and relatively straightforward editing. At first, it seems like a lightweight kung fu story about warring martial arts schools—a lost kite is a major first act plot point—but becomes a far tenser Chinese national-identity informed story about the Japanese occupation of China.
As an aside, I’m eternally grateful to the Ip Man series for boxing out the creation of a corporation-protecting superhero named Intellectual Property Man
As Master Ip, Donnie Yen is effortlessly charismatic. And the character is this weird blend of self-assured bad-assery and chill neighborhood dad. We’re on his side in a heartbeat. Near the start, he spars with a fellow local kung fu master, which entails navigating tricky emotional terrain: Ip respects the guy and doesn’t want to humiliate him. He invites him over for dinner and extends him every courtesy. Still, he has to beat him soundly enough that he won’t take another run at him. You quickly grow so loyal to him you ignore how he has two moves in fights: leaning back slightly and punching someone so hard and often it looks like he’s tenderizing meat.
When the credits rolled on Ip Man, I remembered that Netflix streams the sequel. But my enthusiasm steadily deflated as I watched Ip Man 2 At least on the version streaming on Netflix, the dubbing is absurdly bad and feels at times like a parody of kung fu voiceovers. The plot drifts around without locking into anything intriguing. I perked up when the main bandit from the original appeared but where he was a prime threat in the original, in the sequel he’s a sniveling coward no one takes seriously.
The bandit’s cowardice served a plot purpose, though: setting the stage for Hung’s entrance. Seeing the bandit, formerly a fearsome opponent to Ip Man, fear a next level boss, audiences know someone serious is coming on soon.
Time for a shameful admission: I didn’t realize it was Sammo Hung. I know Hung from ‘70s and ‘80s comedy kung fu movies, when he had a Moe Howard bowl-cut and the facial expressions of a silent film comedian running from a pack of keystone cops with stolen pie.
Hung’s no goofball in Ip Man 2. He’s a magnificent steam train of charisma, a swaggering gangster with deep canyons carved into his face who people reflexively back away from when he steps into a room.
While Hung’s physical presence is commanding, his hair in Ip Man 2 is truly epic. I paused the movie for five full minutes to study it and email myself comparisons and thoughts. It looked perpetually windswept, dark and shiny as wet ink and cut through a contrail-like white streak. It was like Vincent Price stepped into the teleportation machine with Cruella Deville instead of a housefly in The Fly. Sylvio Dante mixed with Tulsi Gabbard. Lilly Munster gone butch. Marcello Mastroianni as an evil wizard.
His mustache reminded me of the lead singer of Monster Magnet and I liked that comparison so much I didn’t bother thinking of any others.
Hung’s entrance jolted me awake. He ran a martial arts school and challenged Ip to a test of his martial arts prowess. Ip fends off a series of fighters before facing Hung in a ferocious tabletop fight.
When the fight ends Hung tells Ip he has to pay protection money to open his martial school, which it turns out was the plot of the movie all along I guess. Ip refuses to pay and he’s at loggerheads with Hung’s students for a couple of scenes before Hung and Ip become begrudging friends.
Soon after, Hung fights the Twister, an enormous, racist English boxer (Britain, the former colonial occupiers of Hong Kong, replace the Japanese as the ethnic villains) in an exhibition fight. Overpowered by the Twister and hobbled by asthma, Hung dies in the ring in one of the bloodiest and most melodramatic death scenes ever filmed.
The melodrama worked until I remembered that Hung was doing petty shakedowns a scant 10 scenes ago. It’s an incredible and incredibly fast character arc. In many respects, he’s like Apollo Creed in the Rocky series, evolving from flashy villain to respect friend and equal to death that must be avenged. But Hung does it in about an eighth of the time. Creed takes three entire movies to change. Hung’s in Ip Man 2 for under an hour. It’s fast, reckless story-telling but Hung makes it work.