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Originally published Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 3:01 PM

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Movie review

'Ip Man 2': Sequel's martial-arts action beats the storytelling

A movie review of "Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grand Master," a fictionalized sequel about real-life kung-fu master Ip Man starring Donnie Yen.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grand Master,' with Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Darren Shahlavi. Directed by Wilson Yip, from a screenplay by Edmond Wong. 108 minutes. Rated R for violence. In Chinese with English subtitles. Several theaters.

Film scholars have lamented a decline in both the entertainment value and political economy of Hong Kong martial-arts movies since Britain relinquished its colonial rule to China in 1997. But fans of the genre have seen a few notable upticks thanks partly to Ip Man, a historical figure who championed the Wing Chun fighting style and was lionized for being mentor to that icon of the Hong Kong actioner, Bruce Lee.

The fictionalized biopic continuation of the Ip Man saga is nowhere near as epic, fraught with drama or burnished with the lush production design of its predecessor. "Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grand Master" is distinguished by a string of stylishly choreographed martial-arts combat scenes, though barely serviceable in its storytelling. The sneering Brit villains are laughable compared with the menace of nationalist terror depicted in the original.

Several years after his escape from the brutality of wartime Japanese occupation in southern China, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) has quietly ensconced his family in a Hong Kong rooftop hideaway. It's 1950 and a new generation of youth is seeking the discipline of martial-arts training. The deceptively placid Ip begins taking on students, becoming Wing Chun master to a loyal crew eager to practice their ferocious skills, even though his counsel is: "It is better not to fight."

Wisdom and philosophy may be at the heart of the training, but fighting is what the audience wants, too, and the movie provides several glorious set pieces of crunchy kicking and punching.

The expertly staged action scenes were designed by the legendary Sammo Hung, who also plays one of Ip's rival martial-arts masters. Their battle on a rickety tabletop surrounded by upturned chairs is the movie's high point.

Another extended brawl lays thrilling waste to a fishmonger's warehouse, the chaos captured with brutally balletic movements and a clarity that's often lacking in the muddled editing of Hollywood action movies.

Rival masters and students settle internal scraps while an overly thickened plot focuses on evil bureaucrat/colonists whose manipulation of the martial-arts community culminates in an East-meets-West boxing match.

Some ugly racism fuels a "Rocky"-like finale between a muscle-bound British pugilist (Darren Shahlavi) and the soft-spoken, yet fury-fisted Ip. But it's no surprise that even as he inflames knuckles, Ip Man's gentle strength soothes the spirits of enemies and friends.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

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