IP MAN 4: THE FINALE is from the makers of the IP MAN trilogy, according to the giant standee in the multiplex lobby that made me aware of its Christmas day release. I’m grateful to be able to see movies like this on the big screen.
IP MAN is a series released across 11 years with stories spanning from the 1930s to the 1960s, with the great Donnie Yen (HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME) not only showcasing his great fighting skills (in a style he hadn’t previously practiced), but also giving his greatest acting performance as this distinctly gentle and polite asskicker. That’s why I wish it could go on forever. I’m sure we’ll get other great Donnie Yen movies, but I’ll miss him playing this character.
The final Ip Man adventure begins with the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships and takes place primarily in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Back home in Hong Kong, Ip lives in a tiny apartment with his moody teenage son Ip Ching, who has been kicked out of school for fighting (actually defending himself with too much enthusiasm). The principal and others convince Ip he should send his son to study abroad, so he decides to use a plane ticket sent to him by his former student Bruce Lee (Danny Chan, the Bruce-lookalike goalie from SHAOLIN SOCCER who subsequently played Lee in the TV series The Legend of Bruce Lee and then IP MAN 3) to try to get him admitted into a school in San Francisco.
All that will take is a letter of recommendation from the Chinese Benevolent Association, where he approaches a literal round table of stone-faced grandmasters introduced along with the styles they’ve mastered. It turns out they, and especially president Wan Zong Hua (Wu Yue, YOUNG BRUCE LEE, BIRTH OF THE DRAGON, THE BRINK), are pissed that Bruce wrote an English-language instructional kung fu book. Since Ip approves of Bruce preaching kung fu to non-Chinese they refuse his request, and once again he’s in conflict with a bunch of dogmatic masters.
The fictionalized Bruce has his biggest role in the series, but is still used strategically, making a big impression but leaving the movie to his mentor. Though previously portrayed as kind of an obnoxious hot shot, here he seems humble despite his oversized charisma. His school is small but full of enthusiastic students who follow him around like an entourage.
Meeting with Ip Man at a diner after the tournament, they’re accosted by racist white karate dudes in gis. Ip keeps their table while they go outside to fight. Later he lets the other masters regroup at his school, holds no grudge and waves off apologies as unnecessary, following the example of his teacher. He has become a unifier.
Like some of my favorite martial arts films, the plot is an odd blend of silly and deep. It hinges on some big (but poetic) coincidences and a subplot about high school bullying. Ip visits a fancy private school, failing to gain his son’s admission without CBA approval, and happens to see a Chinese girl being beat up by a blond girl and a bunch of big jock dudes. Of course he thrillingly intervenes, staying mostly stationary except when he spanks one of those dickheads with his own hockey stick. Accompanying the bullied girl, Yonah (Vanda Margraf) home on the bus, he discovers that she’s the daughter of CBA head Wan, but her putting in a good word for him doesn’t help much.
The silly/deep part is that this all stems from a white girl named Becky Walters (Grace Englert) being angry that Yonah made the cheerleading team. Humiliated by being cut during the fight, she lies about Yonah to her mom, who calls Mr. Walters (Nico Amedeo) home from a business trip to do something about it. And since he’s an I.N.S. agent, he decides to raid the CBA, accuse them of harboring “illegal aliens” and deport everybody. So this little brat’s values come from her parents and then she causes her parents to do this shit.
Meanwhile, Ip learns a lesson by seeing Yonah be treated by her dad the way he treats his son, and Wan learns from seeing how Yonah talks to Ip. Everybody learning from everybody.
Oh yeah, but also Bruce has a student named Hartman (Vanness Wu, THE KUMITE, DRAGON SQUAD) who is a staff sergeant in the Marines and wants to incorporate Wing Chun into training, but is shut down by a racist gunnery sergeant named Barton Geddes… played by SCOTT MOTHERFUCKIN ADKINS. In the tradition of some of the Cobra Kai or Chris Penn in BEST OF THE BEST, Geddes and his buddies are racist xenophobes who also turn out to be masters of karate. His fiercest henchman, Colin Frater, is played by Chris Collins, who was in WOLF WARRIOR with Adkins and really impressed me in PARADOX. In real life he’s an ex-Marine who became a Wing Chun teacher.
Part 1-3 director Wilson Yip (SPL/KILL ZONE, FLASH POINT, PARADOX) and writer Edmond Wong return along with part 3’s action director Yuen Woo-Ping (GAME OF DEATH II, TAI-CHI MASTER, WING CHUN, THE GRANDMASTER, MAN OF TAI CHI), with choreography by his brothers Cheung-Yan and Shun-Yee. This is Adkins’ first time working with Yen (a dream come true for him, I believe) or Yip. He had bit parts in the Woo-Ping choreographed BLACK MASK 2 and UNLEASHED. Yen’s movies with Woo-Ping date back to 1982 and include WING CHUN, IRON MONKEY and CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY.
The choreography is kind of subdued and down-to-earth compared to some of the previous movies, or especially the Woo-Ping directed spinoff. Here he concentrates almost entirely on one-on-one challenges. As always, a big part of the joy is watching Yen’s posture and movements, and the way they contrast with those of his opponents. Adkins as Geddes looks big and bulky, his fists giant. He’s incredibly acrobatic for an American yahoo who’s just macho about karate, but he’s all about battering and overpowering. Ip stands upright and chips away at him with sharp, precise arm movements, his rapid blows making percussive sounds like a drum roll.
Another highlight is Bruce’s alley fight with a bull-like karate champ (Mark Strange, AVENGEMENT). It’s cool to see Woo-Ping choreographing (a fake) Bruce Lee. The karate guy makes the unfortunate choice to pull out nunchakas, which of course end up in Bruce’s fists of fury. Chan gets to do the show-offy spins of course, but when he actually starts swinging them they seem dangerous in a way I’ve never really considered before. Hats off to the foley artists and the part where Bruce kicks them back into the guy’s face.
I don’t think there’s any wire work, but there’s a little bit of the classic Woo-Ping moves, jumping onto tables, sliding under tables, kicking tables so that they slide across floors. I like seeing this in a movie that also re-creates Bruce Lee’s famous one-inch punch demonstration – knocking a guy into a chair that slides across the stadium floor – and drawing a line between the two.
By the way, if they really wanted to set up some Ip Man Legacies they should’ve had actors playing Chuck Norris, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez and Billy Blanks, just a few of the luminaries who competed at that tournament.
I certainly appreciate Yen vs. Adkins, and Geddes is a solid entry in the grand tradition of the Evil Gweilo antagonist. Here Adkins is following in the footsteps of his late friend Darren Shahlavi, whose IP MAN 2 character Taylor “The Twister” Milos is one of the great arrogant Caucasian villains of modern martial arts cinema. Adkins seems to be having fun playing a total racist dick begging for comeuppance, and I get a kick (a flying double kick?) out of hearing traces of his actual English accent under his all-purpose American one as he’s trying to steer it a little towards R. Lee Ermey. Setting a Wing Chun dummy on fire after dismissing the idea that the Marines could learn from Chinese martial arts is a pretty extravagant demonstration of cinematic assholery.
So I hope this doesn’t come off as pouring cold water on it, but I do prefer Ip’s opponents who are layered with honor and the possibility to make peace, show respect or be redeemed. For example:
- Louis Fan as Kam Shan-Chau, an arrogant master turned thief in part 1 who is reformed in part 2 and helps Master Ip out.
- Sammo Hung as Hung Chun-nam in part 2, a rival master who has an incredible duel with him and later becomes his friend.
- Mike Tyson as Frank in part 3, a foreign real estate developer linked to organized crime who nevertheless fights a fair and respectful challenge match with Ip Man
- Max Zhang as Cheung Tin-chi in part 3, a humble rickshaw driver turned egomaniac master who changes his ways in the spin-off MASTER Z: IP MAN LEGACY
I even appreciate a gesture as small as in this one when the karate asshole, having been completely demolished by Bruce, gives him a thumbs up. That’s the sweet spot right there – that’s what I came for. But Ip vs. Geddes is your basic good guy vs. bad guy, proud Chinese man vs. cruel and hateful westerner. There’s an element of Chinese propaganda in that, but sadly it’s hard to argue with. They show what a contribution Ip could make to America – and did by teaching Bruce – but he’s disillusioned by the racist assholes he encounters and decides not to stay here. Indeed, Lee soon found he had to return to the Hong Kong film industry to star in movies. But these anti-immigrant, deportation-happy white people (sometimes called whiteys in the subtitles!) are also a not-even-necessarily-exaggerated commentary on the minority of white nationalists currently in power. Thanks alot, assholes. Making America look bad in the IP MAN movies.
I haven’t even mentioned that Ip has a cancerous tumor and may not have long to live. There’s a scene that made me tear up a little, and I heard sniffling from elsewhere in the theater. To me this doesn’t feel like a part 1 style Serious Drama, and I don’t think the melodrama is handled much more precisely than in the previous sequels, so I think it having this effect on us is a testament to Yen’s impeccable portrayal and our attachment to the character over these four films. Oh, and the theme song. That’s enough to make part 4 worth my time, even if it’s more more-of-the-same than an escalation or thrilling conclusion.
You know me. I love this kinda shit. Thank you, makers of the IP MAN trilogy.
Trivial shit I wanted to mention:
1. There’s a part where Frater is yelling at a soldier named Kreese and it seems like a little homage to KARATE KID’s John Kreese, another American bully teaching white people karate completely divorced from its cultural origins. But I could be crazy, and Kreese was supposed to have been in a different branch of the military, and also the subtitle says “Cleese.”
2. But also I took the line “Get the banana out of the tail pipe” as a reference to BEVERLY HILLS COP. This guy predicted BEVERLY HILLS COP.
3. I do believe I noticed a flyer for a Cassius Clay fight hanging in Bruce Lee’s Jun Fan Kung Fu Institute. I thought that was a funny coincidence since ONCE UPON A TIME …IN HOLLYWOOD controversially depicted Lee as shit-talking Ali.
My reviews of Ip Man movies:
the Donnie Yen ones:
the official spinoff:
the other ones:
Wong Kar Wai’s THE GRANDMASTER
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.