Neither Silent, Nor Deadly

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is a blatant disregard for everything the silent ninja stands for. After the unexpected success of Bumblebee, a Snake Eyes prequel didn’t sound like a bad idea from Hasbro. He is the most popular G.I. Joe character after all. The problem is the franchise never having a strong foundation. However bad they may be, at least Transformers is relatively consistent. G.I. Joe only has 2 loosely connected live-action movies. Rather than follow a mysterious badass silent ninja with a cool black outfit, this Snake Eyes gladly shows his face, won’t shut up, and only wears his iconic suit for 24 seconds at the very end. Only true G.I. Joe fans will understand how wrong that is. It’s one of many reasons I think the movie bombed. The Pandemic notwithstanding.

Snake Eyes answers so many questions that nobody asked. His name came from a pair of dice, he learned to fight in a Japanese ninja clan, and no explanation is given for any of his other defining traits. Even though Ray Park was a perfectly capable martial artist, Henry Golding was probably cast to keep the cast mostly Asian. Most cast members are also martial artists. Even though director Robert Schwentke settles for intense shaky cam action. Making all ninja fights feel generic no matter who performs them. Snake Eyes is kind of a jerk with no personality seeking revenge for his father. G.I. Joe and Cobra Command practically come out of nowhere with only a handful of members present.

Storm Shadow is equally misused with Andrew Koji looking like a complete pushover named Tommy. He’s the heir to the Arashikage clan who’s more friend than foe. Until he randomly calls himself Storm Shadow at the very end. Baroness is a lot better with the appropriately foreign Úrsula Corberó in the part. A red haired Samara Weaving is also perfect as Scarlett, but she feels just as wasted in such a small part. Way more attention is given to original female ninja/love interest Akiko. Raid star Iko Uwais and 300 star Peter Mensah are present as Hard Master and Blind Master respectively, but their tests feel basic. Snakes Eyes must take a bowl of water, have a vision, and survive a pit of giant CGI snakes. The latter test embraces the supernatural element of the toy franchise. Yet a forgettable villain stealing a magical explosive jewel still comes out of nowhere. By the time Snake Eyes gains his ninja suit, I honestly felt nothing for what that meant. Snake Eyes is a reboot, a spin-off, and an origin story that nobody asked for.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes gears up

Horizontal, Vertical (水平垂直)

The Grandmaster is the more stylized approach to the Ip Man story. Although it’s a bit confusing, two seperate Ip Man movies were in production around 2008. A 2008 franchise starting one starring Donnie Yen and a 2013 standalone one starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai. I’ll always prefer Ip Man, but The Grandmaster did make me curious. I remember when it was nominated for 2 Oscars. Best Cinematography for Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s beautiful, mostly slow motion backdrops. Best Costume Design for its decades long period setting.

Unlike Ip Man, The Grandmaster severely condenses his life. To the point that many events are explained in narration and/or text. There’s not too much focus on his wife or children, the Second Sino-Japanese War is quick, Ip Man’s Wing Chun martial arts school is in the background, and Bruce Lee is just a boy who appears close to the end. So the movie’s biggest strength is action. Most of it focused on Grandmaster Ip Man teaching the importance of martial arts. There are fights in the rain, in the snow, and by a train.

A conflict between the South and the North leads to him facing many grandmasters. Those fights are much more close quarters. Tony Leung is fine as Ip Man, but we don’t really get to know him. He’s more distinguishable by his white fedora. A lot of the focus actually switches to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actress Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er. She’s a Northern rival and possible mistress with a journey that takes up most of the film’s climax. The Grandmaster is artful, but not my preferred way to experience Ip Man.

The Grandmaster

Ip Man vs. Gong Er

The Student Becomes the Master (学生成为主人)

Ip Man 4: The Finale gave Grandmaster Ip Man a dignified send off. It was only a matter of time before this mostly biographical martial arts franchise came to an end. Donnie Yen returned one final time and gave it his all. After losing his wife, Ip Man is diagnosed with cancer in 1964. He fights through the pain and deliverers some of his fiercest Wing Chun. Danny Chan is a lot more prominent as Bruce Lee, but the movie still isn’t about him. Though he does have an awesome fight scene complete with nunchucks.

Lee invites Ip Man to San Francisco where most of the film takes place. So expect way more English than you’d expect from a Chinese production. The central theme is “father’s and their children.” Ip Man has a strained relationship with his son, but he still goes to America to find him a school. Tai Chi master Mr. Wan of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association appears to be the villain, but this franchise always leads me astray. The real enemy is discrimination. Something Wan’s daughter Yonah faces from an annoying rival cheerleader.

Ip Man takes her under his wing and defends their way of life. He fights Chinese masters, school bullies, and a racist drill instructor. Lee’s student Hartman is a US Marine who’s Chinese kung fu is mocked by the karate proficient Barton Geddes played by martial artist Scott Atkins. Ip Man defeats his brash sensi when he comes to Chinatown, then teaches Geddes a brutal lesson. Ip Man 4 never loses sight of what’s important with a genuinely heartfelt tribute to Ip Man’s finest moments. Ending with world famous Bruce Lee at his grandmaster’s funeral. Ip Man 4: The Finale is an honorable end.

5. Ip Man 4

Ip Man prepares to fight

Preceded by: Ip Man 3

Another Master’s Path (另一个大师之路)

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is a fine detour from the Ip Man story. Although produced by Donnie Yen, Master Z is all about rival Wing Chun master Cheung Tin-chi. He may be based on a real martial artist, but the story is more or less fictional. Max Zhang made such an impression in Ip Man 3, that he was given his own spin-off. One more concerned with stylized action than story. Not that Cheung isn’t an interesting martial artist who wants to put that life behind him.

He’s just trying to be a good father, but Cheung is roped into the violent world of organized crime. Something that brings him in contact with the lovely Julia, her business owning brother, and opium addicted friend. Both triads are ran by major celebrities. Martial arts legend Michelle Yeoh seems to be the villain, but Ms. Kwan is trying to legitimize her business. It’s really her brother making trouble in an illegal drug ring. Dave Bautista himself plays syndicate leader/restaurant owner Owen Davidson. Tony Jaa is also involved as a mysterious hired assassin.

Since action is more emphasized, all players get impressively over-the-top fights. Cheung faces several men on neon signs, fights with the surprisingly proficient Julia, matches skills with Yeoh, and has a brutal scuffle with Bautista. In the end, the real enemy is the increasingly annoying dirty cops controlled by the British. Master Z doesn’t add much to the Ip Man legacy, but awesome action is usually enough for me.

4. Master Z Ip Man Legacy

Cheung Tin-chi vs. Tso Ngan Kwan

Spin-Off of: Ip Man 3

Master vs. Master (大师对大师)

Ip Man 3 is probably the weakest in the franchise by default. Ip Man got so popular at this point, that telling a genuinely authentic biopic was no longer a top priority. Ip Man 3 is far more stylized with a PG-13 rating instead of the usual R. Several Ip Man movies sprang up between the second film’s release and Donnie Yen wasn’t keen on returning. Even though the Grandmaster of Wing Chun had so much story left to tell. Although it now takes place in 1959, I’m not sure how much of the movie is factually accurate anymore. Ip Man 3 deals with rising crime in Hong Kong.

The Chinese police officer from the second movie returns to assist Ip Man when a greedy foreign developer seeks his son’s school. You know you’ve achieved international fame when Mike Tyson himself wants to play the villain. It’s a little jarring, but Tyson’s boxing/martial arts match with Ip Man is a highlight. The rest of the action is on par with the previous films. Though it does seem to take more time to get to the cooler fights. Ip Man once again takes on over 10 thugs and has a close quarters fight in an elevator. Bruce Lee was originally a priority for Ip Man 3, but he’s still mostly a cameo whom Ip Man neither accepts, nor denies.

Fun fact: Danny Chan actually previously played Bruce Lee in a biographical Chinese TV series. The main theme is Ip Man’s relationship with his family. The most genuine part of the movie is Ip Man losing his wife. So his final obstacle ends up being a martial artist similar to himself. Based on Sum Nung, Zhang Jin effectively plays Ip Man’s friendly Wing Chun rival and fellow struggling father Cheung Tin-chi. They ultimately fight in an epic match to prove whose Wing Chun is superior. Zhang is so memorable that he ended up getting his own spin-off. Ip Man 3 does go more for style, but its substance isn’t without merit.

3. Ip Man 3

Ip Man vs. Cheung Tin-chi

Preceded by: Ip Man 2 & Followed by: Ip Man 4: The Finale

The Grandmaster’s Legend (宗师的传奇)

Ip Man 2 continues the legend of the grandmaster with a sequel that plays to the strengths of the original. The mostly true story of Master Ip Man was meant to focus on his famous tutelage of Bruce Lee, but it was too soon for that. Instead, Ip Man 2 closely follows Ip Man’s family after they’ve survived the Japanese occupation of Foshan. Although less grim than the first movie, Ip Man 2 has far greater character drama. While at the same time increasing the martial arts action tenfold. Fortunately Donnie Yen is excellent at conveying both.

Ip Man 2 begins in 1950 Hong Kong where Ip Man takes care of his pregnant wife and struggles to open his own school for Wing Chun. His most eager student is the impulsive Leung who slowly learns the importance of kung fu. The only other returning characters are his savior Chow becoming a sad beggar and his former rival Jin turning his life around. Fighting is still the star of the franchise with even more awesome fights between expert martial artists. Ip Man teaches his potential students a lesson and defends himself against a horde of rival students.

Fellow martial arts legend Sammo Hung plays Master Hung. Although presented as the villain, Hung is just a struggling family man with a big ego. Their best fight is on an unstable table top. The true enemy is British colonialism. The final act practically turns into Rocky IV with an East meets West boxing match between English speaking foreign devils. Hung and Ip Man separately face the brash Twister played by English stuntman Darren Shahlavi. Their ring matches are intense, but Ip Man prevails and offers a message of peace. Only a last minute scene alludes to the future with a 10 year old Bruce Lee confidently seeking Ip Man’s training. Ip Man 2 ups the stakes and increases the excitement.

2. Ip Man 2

Ip Man vs. The Twister

Preceded by: Ip Man & Followed by: Ip Man 3

The Great Master (伟大的大师)

Ip Man is an awesome display of masterful martial arts action. Just as influential as Bruce Lee is the man who taught him. Master Ip Man (or Yip Man) was a Chinese martial arts grandmaster of Wing Chun. Many Hong Kong filmmakers wanted to make a biopic, but the 2008 Ip Man beat them all to the finish line. I’ve heard of Ip Man, but foreign films are rarely on my radar. It was really a co-worker of mine who encouraged me to watch it. Ip Man was so cool that I had to backtrack just to experience the Bruce Lee collection. Only then did I fully appreciate the original master. Expert martial artist Donnie Yen is an absolute spectacle as Master Ip Man. He’s both humble and fierce when he needs to be.

Although based on a true story, Ip Man is meant to be a stylized kung fu flick. The beginning is a lot lighter with Ip Man as a wealthy family man who accepts challenges behind closed doors. His wife Cheung Wing-sing is depicted along with their son Ip Chun. We also meet Ip Man’s close friend Chow who owns a cotton mill, bickering brothers Lin & Yaun, and police officer Li. All of whom respect Foshan martial arts and Ip Man’s coveted skills. A sudden dark turn brings Ip Man into the practically colorless reality of the 1937 Second Sino-Japanese War. His family faces great hardships, but Wing Chun isn’t as useless as he thinks.

Action is the real star of the movie. Ip Man fights with precision strength, rapid punches, and effective kicks. The first duel between local master Liu is a perfect opener. The second duel between cocky martial artist Jin is humorous, but he does return to bully Foshan later on. Leading to Ip Man training cotton mill employees to defend themselves. The true enemy is the ruthless martial arts obsessed Japanese General Miura and his more sadistic second-in-command. Ip Man defends the Chinese people in a final public duel against Miura, but easily the best fight is Ip Man confidentially defeating 10 men in a dojo. Ip Man hints at the grandmasters later life and Bruce Lee, but the movie is just as accomplished with his action-packed early years.

Ip Man

Ip Man prepares to fight

Followed by: Ip Man 2

The Man, the Myth, the Legend

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story explores the man behind the legend. After watching Bruce Lee’s entire filmography, I figured the next logical step was to watch a biopic. Dragon has Linda Lee Cadwell’s seal of approval and even some input from Brandon Lee before his untimely death. Although Brandon was considered for the role of his father, up-and-coming actor Jason Scott Lee was chosen instead. Since Bruce Lee is so iconic, it’s impossible to see anyone else in the part, but Jason Scott does an admirable job. Dragon follows Bruce Lee as he grows up in Hong Kong and receives martial arts training from Ip Man himself.

Most of it is rushed since the primary focus is Lee’s life in America. How Lee worked as a humble dishwasher and faced prejudice as a Chinese American. The most effective depiction being how Bruce reacted to yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At its heart, Dragon is a love story between Bruce and his future wife Linda. Lauren Holly is just as effective in depicting their forbidden love, hardships, and eventual triumphs. The Randy Edelman theme enhances every moment. We see them writing his book Tao of Jeet Kune Do and the birth of their children Brandon and Shannon. Although Rob Cohen could’ve made a straightforward biopic, he filled it with mysticism and exaggerated fights.

Lee’s inner demons are literally depicted with samurai and the fights are meant to represent actual Bruce Lee movies. Bruce trains people of all races, defends his honor on multiple occasions, and is eventually discovered by producers. We see him as Kato on The Green Hornet, how he lost the role in Kung Fu, and how he won success back in Hong Kong. Only The Big Boss and Enter the Dragon are depicted since they represent his strained home life the best. Dragon ends on a triumphant note without having to show Bruce Lee’s tragic death. Although some see it as hero worship, Dragon: The Bruce Lee is an honest portrayal through a Hollywood lens.

Dragon A Bruce Lee Story

Bruce Lee on the set of Enter the Dragon

Tower of Death

Game of Death II has nothing to do with Bruce Lee. Despite using footage from Enter the Dragon, childhood home videos, and part of his funeral, this 1981 “sequel” is very much part of Bruceploitation. The death of the martial arts legend led to a series of imitators trying to be the next Bruce Lee. There was Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lie, Bruce Ly, and so many more who never came close. Bruceploitation inspired several sequels to his older films, but only Game of Death II uses archive footage.

Although the English dub uses the name Billy Lo, there’s no connection between movies. Billy seeks answers for the death of his friend Chin Ku or something to that effect. I honestly stopped caring as soon as Bruce Lee’s character was killed and quickly replaced by a brother played by previous stand-in martial artist Tong Lung. Bobby Lo avengers his brother’s death at The Palace of Death. There are several larger than life villains and an overly long climax underground in the Tower of Death.

It’s not that I don’t have respect for other martial artists in the movie, but why should I care if Bruce Lee isn’t involved? The only time I gave my undivided attention was in a scene where a very naked blonde assailant seduces Bobby, then tries to kill him. Just as memorable is the ridiculous scene that follows it. Where Bobby is attacked by a guy in a clearly fake lion costume. Game of Death II is a less than inspired last ditch effort to profit from a long deceased legend.

6. Game of Death II

Bobby Lo faces an opponent

His Legacy Lives On

Game of Death is the martial arts epic we sadly never got to see. Everyone (my mother included) was shocked to learn Bruce Lee passed away at the young age of 32. It seemed like he was just getting started. Game of Death was meant to be Lee’s second directorial effort, but Enter the Dragon kept him from finishing it. Despite over 39 minutes worth of footage existing, only 11 minutes were repurposed into an awkward American production. Needless to say, my mom was less than eager to recommend it. The much cooler original Game of Death plot would’ve seen Bruce Lee as retired martial arts champion Hai Tien.

The idea of him ascending a pagoda to fight increasingly tough opponents can still be seen in action movies and video games today. Same with his iconic yellow & black jumpsuit. The 1978 film butchers the footage with a less than original revenge story against racketeers. Every trick in the book is used to convince you several stunt doubles are Bruce Lee. The most infamous example being a cardboard cutout of Lee’s face taped to a mirror. Footage from Way of the Dragon and Fist of Fury are used since Billy Lo is an actor filming scenes from both movies. The stand-in always wears thick sunglasses and stands at a distance, but you can clearly tell he isn’t Lee in close-ups.

A presumed death, that distastefully uses real funeral footage, gives Billy the excuse to have plastic surgery and wear a disguise. When his American girlfriend played by Colleen Camp is threatened, Lo takes a yellow motorcycle tracksuit and faces the mob at their pagoda restaurant. As expected, the only highlight is seeing Bruce Lee himself. Although it feels harsher without the dialogue, it’s good enough seeing Lee fight the nunchucking Dan Inosanto, flashy Ji Han-jae, and 7 ft. basketball player kareem Abdul-Jabbar himself. Their fight is particularly memorable since Abdul-Jabbar is so huge. Game of Death has so much lost potential that can’t always be found in the finished cut.

5. Game of Death

Billy Lo (Hai Tien) faces an opponent

P.S. I’ve supplied the real Game of Death underneath.