Wilson Yip's IP MAN may not be a great movie, but it's a great martial arts movie, and that's all that matters. This assessment may not be a startlingly original one, but IP MAN is not a startling original movie, either, which is one of its charms. This is very much a throwback to the more traditional martial arts films of years past, an old-fashioned martial arts biopic of a legendary figure in the world of martial arts (in this case, the man who revolutionized Wing Chun and who later mentored Bruce Lee), that is less about facts and more about fostering the legend. This may not have been the way any of this really happened, but then again, who really gives a shit?
IP MAN follows a classic martial arts movie structure of slight characterization, followed by fights, followed by plotting, then followed by fights, then followed by wrapping up the plotting and ending in more fights. Something like this may seemed tired and cliched, but IP MAN has an earnestness to this structure that gives it credence; it doesn't exactly matter that the film isn't innovative or that creative, just that modern audiences understand what a hero Ip Man is to the Chinese culture. The "true" Ip Man is still something of a mystery, but this Ip Man, as created by director Wilson Yip and star Donnie Chen (in their fourth collaboration together) is a different kind of true; true to his people, true to his family, true to his country and true to his martial arts, a real hero of the people. By sticking with an old fashioned narrative of Ip's refusal to teach Wing Chun, then changing his mind after the Japanese occupy his city and enslave his people, Yip turns Ip into the Wong Hei Hung of his day. However right or wrong this is, it becomes the right approach here because a huge part of who this guy is for contemporary audiences is based in the fact that he was Bruce Lee's mentor, so in turn, Ip Man has to be faster and quicker than Lee ever was, and that's certainly what you get here. Donnie Yen's portrayal of the man is as earnest as can be - Ip Man is pretty much the ultimate patriot and family man - and it's also totally, 100% badass. Yen has never been better, both as an actor and a martial artist; he usually comes off as too cocky and self-assured in his other roles, but he reigns it all in here and he gets it just right. It's said this was a dream role for Yen, and he definitely doesn't waste the opportunity, and he's a huge part of the film's success.
As I said, IP MAN also represents Yen's best work to date as a martial artist, and if you'll allow me to go further than that, IP MAN is also one of the very best martial arts films of the decade, no question. Every fight scene (and there's a lot of them) is as expertly shot, edited and choreographed as the best of Hong Kong action films can be, and they are all refreshingly earth-bound and mostly CGI-free (there are a few moments here and there, but they go by quick). The fighters in this film pretty much keep their feet on the ground and respect the bounds of gravity; while IP MAN pretty much fantasizes the man's life, it keeps it fairly real as far as the fights are concerned, and that's a wonderful thing. All of the fights are tremendously exciting, up there with the work that Yip and action director Sammo Hung did on their excellent 2005 policier S.P.L., and there's an unpretentiousness to them, like the rest of the film, that makes them quite special. On top of all that, sometimes you just want to see guys get the shit beat out them, and few films in the last few years have done that as well as IP MAN has.
Even though it opened in Hong Kong a mere two months ago, IP MAN will be hitting legal Hong Kong DVD at the end of the week, and I'll certainly be getting myself a copy, while also hoping that it doesn't hit Stateside DVD before a certain film festival rolls around in September. Can't wait to see this one on a big screen.