Whilst some film fans may already be familiar with him and his previous work, there are a whole new slew of film fans eager to check out some of Yen’s work who will be starting with their go-to source for films: Netflix. But sometimes it’s hard to know what to watch and what to avoid, with only a few lines of description and a tenuous star rating to go by. So, at a detriment to both my mental and physical health, I watched every Donnie Yen film that UK Netflix had to offer over the course of two days.
Here are seven mini, (mostly) non-spoilery reviews of everything I watched:
The Monkey King (2014)
Based on the famous Journey to the West, a Chinese novel written in the 16th century, The Monkey King is described by Netflix with the following:
“A monkey born from a heavenly stone acquires supernatural powers and must battle the armies of both gods and demons to find his place in the heavens.”
Sounds awesome, right? Unfortunately, the final product isn’t quite as epic as is described. A mix of creepy monkey face prosthetics and characterisation which deviates from the original novel serves to create something which is both visually ambitious and ultimately quite confusing. The costume design, however, is pretty stunning. Minus the creepy monkey face.
Overall Rating: 4/10
Ip Man (2008)
Potentially Yen’s most well-known role, Ip Man tells the story of real-life martial arts instructor Yip Man, who is perhaps most famous for teaching Bruce Lee all he knows about kicking butts and taking names. It’s a film with a great reputation for good reason: it’s well-written, well-acted and has a series of brilliantly well-crafted martial arts scenes which serve to help tell the story and which also look ridiculously cool in the process. There’s genuine emotion in the film too, you care about the characters and want them to succeed against the odds stacked up against them. There is, of course, a fair amount of anti-Japanese sentiment within the film, considering it’s set in 1937 (when the Japanese invaded Foshan), but as long as you go into the film knowing that the filmmakers have taken some liberties with the version of history presented to us through the eyes of Ip Man, you’ll enjoy yourself immensely.
And the best news? They made two more of these, both of which are currently on Netflix!
Overall Rating: 9.5/10
Ip Man 2 (2010)
Ip Man 2 (aka Ip Man 2: Let It (R)ip) is set in the 1940’s (even though the English Netflix subtitles say 1950?) and follows Uncle Man as he tries to set up a school to teach the art of Wing Chun in Hong Kong. Much like the first instalment in the series, this film is full of heart (this time most of the emotional subplot comes from his wife’s pregnancy, and their financial struggles as they fail to pay rent for their new home) and also full of rad fight scenes.
If this film doesn’t make you want to give up your life to become one of Donnie Yen’s devoted rooftop kicking-and-hitting-stuff students, nothing will. There’s also a cute scene at the end of the film which will make you do an “oh u” face and waggle your finger towards the filmmakers, but I won’t spoil it here as even I’m not that cruel.
Overall Rating: 9/10
Ip Man 3 (2015)
The third and (at this point in time) final installment in the Ip Man series is Ip Man 3, which is set in 1959 and starts off with Man just trying to keep it real for a while, staying out of trouble, and out of the public eye. But, y’know, this is an Ip Man movie so it’s not long before the badass Wing Chun butt-kicking starts, and this time it involves none other than Mike Tyson.
Personally I didn’t find Ip Man 3 as heart-wrenching as the two movies which came before it, but the production quality and acting are both still great. I didn’t find myself enjoying this film any less than I did Ip Man 1 and 2, which is surprising considering there’s a good few years between Ip Man and Ip Man 3.
And don’t worry if you’re saddened by the idea of only having a mere trilogy of Ip Man films for your viewing pleasure, because according to Yen’s Instagram, we will be seeing a fourth instalment of the Ip Man series, set to hit screens sometime in the near future. Wànsuì!万岁
Overall Rating: 8/10
Iceman was the film I was most excited about watching, not because it looked especially amazing, but because the plot revolves around a Ming Dynasty guard (Yen) and his three attackers being unfrozen 400 years in the future to “continue their ancient battle”. Essentially a mix of Captain America and that one Simpsons episode where Jasper locks himself in the Kwik-E-Mart freezer, I was very much on board for this movie.
The basic plot of this movie is that Donnie Yen is from the 1600’s, where he was gifted with a giant golden wheel that can transport him through time, which has to be activated with a giant crystal, which is actually the Hindu God Shiva’s penis. If that doesn’t immediately interest you in slamming the play button, you probably won’t be on board for the rest of this film’s offerings.
Highlights of this cinematic experience include:
Donnie Yen punching a guy in a horse mask and a guy in a cow mask in the face at the same time, before catching an arrow in his mouth. At a Halloween party.
Donnie Yen drinking from a toilet and eating an entire baguette whilst sat on a chair on a rooftop.
A weird amount of butt-slapping shots.
Donnie Yen looking like a Chinese Tommy Wiseau when he dresses in “normal modern people clothes”.
This film, overall, was mildly insane. Please watch it.
Overall Rating: Probably like 2/10 for normal people and 10/10 for me
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016)
Our own Stabford Deathrage has actually done an in-depth review of this film so I won’t go into a huge amount of detail on it here. Unfortunately though, Stabford enjoyed it a fair bit more than I did.
Sequel to the well-acclaimed 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Sword of Destiny unfortunately doesn’t live up to the praise of the first film. It does, however, have Yen in a long wig again, so it wins points for that, along with having some visually interesting fight sequences and well-crafted cinematography. The dialogue is fairly generic and this film is also inexplicably in English, which is extra strange when you consider that its predecessor had Mandarin as its spoken language. I found myself just wishing they’d written it in Mandarin to provide some more depth to the characters/narrative, and just to, well, have the whole thing make a little more sense as a Chinese film.
Cheesy but entertaining, with some very pretty scenery.
Overall Rating: 5.5/10
Kung Fu Killer (2014)
Kung Fu Killer (known as Kung Fu Jungle in some territories) is a film where Donnie Yen plays a prisoner who teams up with the police to help take down a murderer who’s killing martial arts masters. It’s as awesome as it sounds.
Kung Fu Killer has good action, good pacing and snappy dialogue. The fight scenes are well-choreographed and visually interesting in terms of both location and shot choice. Generally just an enjoyable film!
This also might also be a good one to watch with friends who aren’t into the whole historical setting that the majority of these films have. I mean, you could show them Iceman instead, if you wanted them to think you insane. That’s set in the modern day. And also in the past. I think. I don’t know. I’m starting to think I dreamt that film, to be honest.
Overall Rating: 8/10
So there we go, a list which will hopefully help you make your decision when you sit down in front your TV/laptop/tablet/mobile/neighbour’s window and pick which Donnie Yen film you want to watch. Whatever your eventual choice(s), you’ll no doubt be entertained, and also probably aroused into a sudden feeling of really wanting to learn martial arts.
I need to go and have a lie down now and pray that Netflix doesn’t decide to add a whole bunch of Jiang Wen films to its UK offerings, so I can get some sleep.
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