On a good day, Hong Kong's Donnie Yen is the greatest working movie star on the face of the earth. Even in bad movies, he has a light charm, a gracefulness that shines brighter than anything his Hollywood peers can offer. There's a warmth in his presence, a gliding dignity. The sparkle in his eye rivals Tom Hanks at his softest. But Tom Hanks can't kick you in the chest and cave in your ribcage. Yen was a wushu tournament medalist years before he acted in a movie, and even in middle age, he seems genuinely pissed that a nagging shoulder injury has prevented him from trying his hand in the UFC.
Yen's been doing great things in movies for upwards of 20 years, and just about all those great things have been in his homeland. He's appeared in a few Hollywood movies—fighting Jackie Chan in Shanghai Knights, dying easily in Highlander: Endgame, dying even easier in the great Blade II—but he's arguably the biggest star in Hong Kong's film industry, and he mostly seems content to stay there. Of all the movie's he's made, the grand 2008 historical drama Ip Man best showcases his abilities, taking advantage of his gentle charisma and his ass-kicking abilities.
Ip Man is about a real guy: Yip Man, a Chinese Wing Chun grandmaster and possible opium addict who died of throat cancer in 1972 and is most famous for training Bruce Lee, the closest thing to a human deity that the Hong Kong film industry ever produced. And in recent years, thanks in good part to Ip Man, Yip has become every bit the folk hero his pupil was. Tony Leung played him in Wong Kar-Wai's ruminative (and, to my mind, overrated and boring) 2013 movie The Grandmaster, and there have been a few other movies about him, from different directors and with different actors playing Yip. There's a Chinese TV series about him now, too. The whole thing is a bit like the period in the '80s when just about every major martial arts star took a turn playing the turn-of-the-century martial artist Wong Fei-Hong, a role rich enough that Jackie Chan could play him as a bumbling lush in Drunken Master and Jet Li could make him an upright champion in Once Upon a Time in China.
But it's hard to imagine anyone equaling Yen's instantly iconic portrayal here, mostly because Yen makes Yip look like such a goddam nice guy, one who also happens to be the most gifted martial artist anyone has ever seen. As the movie opens, we see Yen sitting down to dinner in his palatial mansion in the Chinese city of Foshan. The city is jammed with kung fu schools, and one local teacher pays Ip a visit at home, hoping for a private sparring session. Yen smiles pleasantly and tries to avoid it, saying he's just sitting down to dinner with his family, but the guy insists. So Yen invites him to dinner, serves him tea, offers him a cigarette. And when all that is done, Yen promptly and decisively beats his ass, showing absolute politeness and pulling all of his punches. When his opponent has been thoroughly dismantled, Yen pats him on the back, says, "Thanks for taking it easy on me," and sends him on his way. He's about as courteous and hospitable as you can possibly be while, at the same time, proving your absolute fighting superiority.
Such early scenes are the movie's best: Yen saying that no, no, he couldn't possibly, and then effortlessly knocking aside some chump's attacks and sending him sprawling. Even when a grimy bandit comes to town, beating up all the local masters and trying to make a name for himself, Yen tries not to fight. The bandit (Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky star Fan Siu-Wong, unrecognizable in dirt and stubble) repeatedly insults Yip, but Yip only agrees to fight when his wife lets him loose, and even then, he only uncorks on the bandit when the asshole makes fun of his son. But the movie takes an abrupt and dramatic turn when the Japanese invade Foshan and throw Yip and his family out of their mansion. Yip doesn't want to accept charity, so he goes to work in some sort of coal-shoveling facility and gives up martial arts.