A highly satisfying finale for Donnie Yen’s signature franchise
Sometimes all you’re looking for is a satisfying film-going experience.
Donnie Yen’s signature Ip Man franchise has made its way to the fourth and final(?) entry precisely by delivering cinematic satisfaction entry after entry. It’s a great formula that these films have going.
First of all, there’s star Donnie Yen. He’s been a top tier Chinese superstar for decades now, but it’s this franchise that truly cemented Yen as a legend of kung fu cinema and paved the way for his current success in the west with such films at Rogue One and xXx 3. This is a perfect pairing of star and character. Ip Man is, as characterized in this series, a supremely talented martial artist and fundamentally good and noble man. Yen is perfectly situated (as far as his public persona goes) to play this role. We believe every punch and kick and have no trouble accepting that this quiet and noble man will struggle, but will always try to do the right thing. Yen embodies this role exceptionally, imbuing at once humanity and legend onto the historical figure on which the films are based.
Next you’ve got the specific genre. Based on real events and people, set not in some distant and mystical Chinese dynasty but rather just a generation ago, the Ip Man films walk a razor sharp line of superheroic kung fu battles and topical human drama. As Ip Man and his family navigate the various societal challenges that face them throughout this series, we see great drama and humanity that pulls at our heartstrings. It’s these sequences that really allow star Donnie Yen to both shine and stand out from his numerous invulnerable badass roles. And yet! These are still kung fu movies. And as such, drama will always soon give way to combat.
The on screen action of the Ip Man films has been pretty much unassailable, filled with both the quiet, fluid grace of the lead character and driven by the urgency of the drama. Here in Ip Man 4, as with the last film, the legendary Yuen Woo Ping provides the action direction. The most famous and world renowned action director probably ever to walk the earth, Woo Ping is going to bring you great cinematic fight sequences. Director Wilson Yip has also partnered with Donnie Yen to usher every single one of these films onto the big screen, so that continued collaboration ensures top quality martial arts set pieces.
Another key element that has run through the last several films is simply squaring Ip Man off with a fantastic villain. I first came to know the name of the late, great, (gone far too soon) Darren Shahlavi due to his western boxer fighting Master Ip in Ip Man 2. The legendary Sammo Hung also provided the action direction for the first two films and had an iconic table-top fight with Ip Man in Part 2. Ip Man 3 managed to defy all logic and overcome the stunt casting of Mike Tyson to turn that into a wonderful on screen battle that transcended its gimmickry. And so, with The Finale, it’s only fitting to bring the whole series to its climax with Donnie Yen squaring off with one of the most exciting talents in action cinema today: Scott Adkins.
Ip Man 4: The Finale brings the action largely to America, where Master Ip is visiting both at the invitation of his former student Bruce Lee, and to secure a spot for his troubled teenage son in a private school in San Francisco. Master Ip encounters sharp racism and discord with his Chinese brothers who have immigrated to America and feel differences between themselves and their fellow Chinese still living across the globe. Frankly, it feels ripe and timely for Master Ip to confront issues of racism both as perpetrated by Americans towards the Chinese and as perpetrated against one another from within the same race. It’ll be up to Master Ip’s ceaseless humility and inherent goodness to bring unity among the US-based kung fu masters, reconcile them to student Bruce Lee’s way of doing things, AND prove the value of Chinese martial arts to the United States military by showing a scene-chewing Scott Adkins the power of Wing Chun.
There’s not a lot of nuance going on here, but the drama of the Ip Man series has always been played broad. Many of the English-speaking supporting roles are embarrassingly performed in a way often encountered in cinema where there’s a language barrier between the talent before and behind the camera. And while the climactic battle between Donnie Yen and Scott Adkins is quite satisfying, one does potentially wish it could’ve even gone on a little longer. In fact, Ip Man 4 relies quite a bit on drama and plotting and features maybe the least on screen action of the whole series. What’s there, though, is exciting and appropriate for a character who is actually supposed to be much older than the filmmakers allowed Donnie Yen to appear. Ip Man must be simultaneously struggling with the ravages of aging to amp up the drama and also still be able to muster the force needed to kick the asses of even the most formidable challenger.
It’s worth noting that there’s a fantastic on screen battle featuring Kwok-Kwan Chan as Bruce Lee (reprising his role from the last film) in which Lee is defending the honor of Wing Chun against some skeptical US fighters who force an alley brawl after a big tournament. It’s almost totally inconsequential to the overall story of the film, but it’s great fun and perhaps offers a salve to those who were offended or disappointed by the cocky Bruce Lee portrayed in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood earlier this year. I will say that Bruce Lee’s presence in the Ip Man series feels somewhat aimless. It’s historically accurate that Ip Man taught Bruce Lee. So obviously Lee is going to be a part of the cinematic dramatization of his master. But he’s always been on the periphery. Here there’s actually a small arc for Lee and while he’s still a second-tier character his presence feels more effective here than in any previous film in the series.
Ip Man 4: The Finale concludes a stellar series of kung fu dramas with a satisfying final chapter. And sometimes that’s really all you need. It’s not significantly better or worse than the chapters that have come before. It’s of a piece with them, deals with some timely drama in ways that are occasionally ham-fisted but other times quite effective, and ultimately sends off the series gracefully and effectively. Of course, it’s all but guaranteed that we haven’t seen the last of Ip Man on the big screen. Yen’s series has sparked spin offs and unofficial sequels already. This year’s own Master Z: Ip Man Legacy was quite fantastic and exists as an official spin off, for instance. It’s 2019, so “finale” is probably relative. But if this is the last we see of Donnie Yen as Ip Man, the whole team went out on a very strong note… by resolutely kicking America’s ass.
And I’m Out.
Ip Man 4: The Finale hits US theaters on Christmas Day, December 25th, 2019