The action movies I grew up with were more of the James Bond variety — a lot of spy movies, some superhero fare, with the occasional Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon snuck in. About 10 years ago, I happened to come across a flurry of excellent modern martial arts movies all in the course of a week. Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, and Blood and Bone opened my eyes to what was possible in the direct-to-video space. But it was Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series that cemented my interest in the genre and pushed me to discover more.
Loosely based on the life of famous Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man, the movies reunite Yip and Yen after the pair delivered consecutive bangers with SPL and Flash Point. The Ip Man movies combine terrific fight choreography with moving period-piece storytelling, all revolving around the unique talents of their leading man, a movie star operating at the absolute height of his powers.
Donnie Yen is among the most charismatic and talented movie stars working today. Western audiences may be most familiar with him from his recent roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and John Wick: Chapter 4, or from Shanghai Knights and Blade II. (He also served as Blade II’s action choreographer). But he has a long, long history of using his star power to propel excellent Hong Kong action movies, and the Ip Man series is only one of the latest examples.
Yen’s incredible martial arts skill combined with the series’ choreography is the showiest part of the movies. But what elevates them to genuinely great filmmaking is the way they lean on his deep soulfulness to tell a moving story. The Ip Man movies cover tragedies on both the personal and national level, confronting oppression, cruelty, and the many ways people hurt each other — not just through bone-crushing blows.
And Yen is up to the task, imbuing Ip with a deep melancholy. He starts out as someone who fights because he wants to, engaging in friendly competitions with fellow martial arts masters, but he eventually fights because he has to, protecting the people and values he holds most dear. The movies’ narratives and Yen’s performance do a terrific job of building out this clarity of purpose, making it easy for audiences to become deeply invested in his fights.
There’s plenty more to like about the Ip Man movies, but the standout element is the franchise’s excellent action, helmed by the two most influential and accomplished martial arts directors and choreographers of the modern era. Ip Man and Ip Man 2 have action directed by Sammo Hung (best known for his collaborations with his childhood friend Jackie Chan), while Ip Man 3 and Ip Man 4: The Finale have action directed by Yuen Woo-ping (who helped launch Chan as a star with Drunken Master, and is known internationally for his work on the Matrix movies; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and Kill Bill). In their hands (and Yen’s), the franchise’s fight scenes sing, matching Ip against some of the premier screen fighters working today, including Max Zhang, Louis Fan, Scott Adkins, and Hung himself.
The standout fight from Ip Man sees an enraged Ip demanding to fight 10 Japanese soldiers (all black belts) after he sees them mistreat a fellow master. Until this point, Ip has been relatively quiet and reserved, hesitant to deploy his prowess against the Japanese troops occupying his home during the Second Sino-Japanese War. But after he witnesses this cruel act against a friend and colleague, a switch is flipped, and Ip brutally dispatches all 10 fighters in a ruthless display of Yen’s unthinkable speed and martial arts skill.
Not content to just replay the hits, the later movies add exciting wrinkles to some of their bigger set-pieces. In Ip Man 2, Yen fights Sammo Hung on top of a barely balanced table. In Ip Man 3, he fights former Tony Jaa stunt double Simon Kook in a tightly packed elevator while taking his wife home from the hospital.
In each of these fight scenes, the Ip Man movies use impressive choreography in service of the larger story and character beats. Yes, they are impressive moments of spectacle, but they aren’t just that. The best action movies use the beauty of bodies in motion to show the ways we can express anger, remorse, joy, redemption, and a litany of other emotions not just through words or facial expressions. There are few better vehicles for that than Yen, an unbelievably skilled martial artist with the acting chops to match.
Along with Undisputed 2 (available for digital rental or purchase), Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (free with ads on Crackle), and Blood and Bone (free with ads on Crackle), the Ip Man movies were welcoming gateways for me into the world of martial arts cinema, and now they can be for you, too. Just make sure to catch them before they leave Netflix on July 21.
If you’re reading this after the movies have left the platform, you can still watch the first three Ip Man movies on Peacock, Hi-Yah!, for free with a library card on Hoopla or Kanopy, or for free with ads on Tubi, Crackle, and Pluto TV. You can watch Ip Man 4: The Finale on Hi-Yah! or for free with a library card on Hoopla and Kanopy. For more Ip Man goodness, I highly recommend also checking out Yuen Woo-ping’s Ip Man 3 spinoff Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Peacock, Hi-Yah, for free with a library card on Hoopla and Kanopy, or for free with ads on Crackle, Pluto, and Freevee), and Wong Kar-wai’s very different take on the Ip Man story, The Grandmaster (streaming on Prime, or for free with ads on Tubi).
For more Donnie Yen excellence, check out In the Line of Duty 4 (free with ads on Tubi, Crackle, and Freevee), Wing Chun (available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon), and his previous collaborations with Wilson Yip, SPL (free with ads on Tubi) and Flash Point (streaming on Peacock and Hi-Yah!, for free with a library card on Hoopla, or for free with ads on Tubi, Pluto, and Freevee).