IP MAN 4: THE FINALE (2019) review

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Eleven years after his career was both boosted and defined by the resounding success of Wilson Yip’s Ip Man, Donnie Yen is back for a final time as the grandmaster of Wing Chun. Following the death of his wife, Ip Man is diagnosed with head and neck cancer; his son Jing wants to become a martial arts master himself, but Man wants him to attend university instead, and sensing his end approaching fast, he travels to San Francisco to get him enrolled in a university, hoping the expatriation will teach him independence. There, he meets his former student Bruce Lee, now a revered teacher himself, but frowned upon by the more traditional kung fu masters of Chinatown for daring to instruct non-Chinese in the ways of Chinese martial arts. Chief among these traditionalists is Tai Chi Master Wan (Wu Yue), the head of the Chinese Benevolent Association, whose recommendation is crucial in getting Ip Jing accepted into university. Masters Ip and Wan butt heads over the issue of spreading Chinese martial arts to the West, but a common enemy soon emerges: racist Marine instructor Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins) who deeply resents the attempts by American-born Chinese soldier Hartmann (Vanness Wu) to have Wing Chun included to Marine training, and sends Karate master Collin (Chris Collins) to Chinatown in an attempt to humiliate Chinese martial arts.

Now in their fourth installment, Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen have not shaken up the formula in any way beyond a change of continent – and even there, a lot of the action takes place in Chinatown, so the shift in landscape is minimal. In fact, they’ve made this finale an amalgamation of all the previous films in the franchise. Like Ip Man 1, this pits Chinese martial arts against Karate in a military setting; like Ip Man 2, it has initially hostile grandmasters reconcile in the face of racist gweilo threat; and like Ip Man 3, it has the aging grandmaster come face to face with mortality and his failings as a family man. It is the paradox of this franchise that the more people join the writing room, the less inspiring and the more scattershot the narratives get. The first two films, beautifully linear and focused, were written by Edmond Wong and Chan Tai Lee. The third film, which had a clumsier structure and useless – though enjoyable – digressions (namely Mike Tyson), had added Jill Leung to the team. Now, Hiroshi Fukazawa makes it a quartet of writers, and focus has gone out the window: one subplot involves cheerleader rivalry, truly the very last thing anyone wants from an Ip Man film.

Also contributing to the lack of focus is Chan Kwok Kwan’s Bruce Lee. It’s a bigger role than in the third film, for sure. But the Little Dragon’s towering stature in the history of martial arts means that his presence in a film can only work as a lead, a cameo, or at the very least a strong supporting character. Here it’s none of the above. Though Chan is perfect as ever in the role, and gets a superb back-alley fight against Mark Strange, his presence is pure fan service, almost inconsequential to the narrative, mere balm for the wounds of those who thought that scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Once upon a time in Hollywood to be blasphemy. He’s expensive furniture, and his relationship with Ip Man, which in mythical terms is enough to fuel a trilogy of its own, is barely explored.

But it’s not just focus that goes out the window, it’s also subtlety. That most characters here exist mostly as archetypes to make a point isn’t so troublesome as the ridiculous depiction of racism towards the Chinese. If you thought Darren Shahlavi’s racist Twister in Ip Man 2 was grating, wait til you witness the combined cartoonish, foaming-at-the-mouth power of Scott Adkins and Chris Collins. They hate the Chinese alright, and the screenwriters make sure we don’t doubt that for one second, with lines like “What kind of gook dance is that?”, “Fight me with your hanky-panky kung fu!” or “Chinese kung fu my ass!” yelled by the two actors at every turn. It also make little sense that these rabid racists are karate masters: what kind of white racist extolls the virtues of a Japanese martial art while spitting his hatred of all things Asian? The contradictions don’t end here: if you’re going to denounce racism, why make all Caucasian characters at best ignorant fools, at worst murderous psychopaths? All this robs the film of some of its power, when finally comes the time for Ip Man to right wrongs, and it doesn’t do justice to those who suffered from this racism in its real-life form.

Donnie Yen as the grandmaster is excellent as ever, all quiet charisma, martial arts power throbbing with human self-doubt, weary but resolute. It’s a bit puzzling that Yen is playing the now septuagenarian master with the same smooth skin, black hair and low-key athleticism he possessed in all previous films. Still, the Ip Man franchise always printed the legend rather than the facts, and if this is vanity on the part of the star, it’s mitigated by his willingness to portray the man’s human foibles: after the third film’s portrayal of deep regret for neglecting his wife too often, here we witness his sense of heartbreak at being a flawed father – it’s a moving subplot that deserved to be explored more.

When it comes to the action, there’s of course a lot to sink one’s teeth in. The traditional “one against many” fight is absent this time, a welcome acknowledgement of Ip Man’s advanced years. The aforementioned Bruce Lee skirmish is a joy to behold, and highlights thereafter include the match up of Ip’s Wing Chun against Wan’s Tai Chi, gorgeous yet over too soon, Chris Collins violently barging in on Mid-Autumn festival celebrations and coming to bitterly regret it – the trope of other masters getting defeated before Ip Man steps to the plate to save their honor is well-worn but still absolutely thrilling – and of course the much-anticipated Donnie Yen-Scott Adkins battle is furiously exciting and perhaps the most brutal fight in the franchise. Too bad the emotional stakes are not as high as they should have been. As this franchise draws to a close, it is this writer’s opinion that Sammo Hung’s diptych as an action director (namely 1 & 2), is the more memorable and iconic, but Yuen Woo Ping has of course fashioned breath-taking martial arts confrontations in his own two shots at the franchise.

Every Ip Man film has its resident scene-stealer: Fan Siu Wong in the first film, Sammo Hung in the second, Max Zhang in the third; here it’s Wu Yue. If one can get over the fact that he’s basically the same character as Hung in Ip Man 2, a haughty rival master humbled by Ip Man and bending to western racism before putting his life on the line to save the honor of his people, Wu is superbly vibrant and charismatic, and just as worthy of a spin off as Zhang was in Ip Man 3. Chris Collins and Scott Adkins, outside of the brutal beauty of their fighting, can’t rise above the caricature of their characters, and while it’s good to see franchise regulars Kent Cheng and Lo Meng, it would have been even better to have news of other key characters like Fan Siu Wong’s, or Simon Yam’s. Johnnie To’s cinematographer of choice, Cheng Siu Keung, shoots the film in the lush tones of Poon Hang San’s work on Ip Man 2, and composer Kenji Kawai’s indelible Ip Man theme packs more of a punch than ever, especially in a final montage of the franchise’s most iconic scenes. And iconic this franchise is, indeed.

Long Story Short: A scattershot narrative and a cartoonish depiction of racism weigh Ip Man 4 down, but it is nevertheless a moving finale to an iconic franchise, and the fighting is as thrilling as ever. ***

 

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2 Comments

  1. Me again. I’m just catching up on your reviews now that I’ve got time.
    I saw this three times in a UK cinema, the first to see if it were any good, the second to vote with my money and prove that the UK wants releases from HK, and the third to see Danny Chan convince me yet again that he’s basically Bruce Lee but inevitably slower.
    I loved his alley fight – the heel-toe as he circles the other fighter, the way he dusts himself down, the HK chin of ‘come on then’ – he was perfect as far I could see, but I only have other Bruce Lee movies to go on.
    Donnie Yen I felt should have looked older, but not sure whose idea it was to keep him without even a bit of white hair or looking the actual age he would have been. I know they always go with the spirit of Ip Man and not the cold hard facts, but even so a little grey would have made more sense.
    The one moment that had me sat in shock was when he was fighting Scott Adkins at the end. We’ve seen Ip Man have sparring fights, friendly bouts, tests of his character etc. – but in each one the camera made a point of showing that he withheld punches or his foot didn’t make the kick. It was held there to show he could have done it – but chose not to. In Ip Man 4 it was the first time we saw him actually follow through with his fingers to the throat. That moment shocked me more than any moment in any other film in the last six months – not sure about the rest of the audience but I felt that was a perfect ending to all the other fights he’d had. He could finally just go all the way and not back down.
    As I write this, the news of Ip Ching’s death has just been covered by social media and I was caught thinking that it would have been interesting to find out what he thought of the franchise; was it the spirit building use of martial arts that the characters wanted or did he feel it was just a movie to sucker in those who love a good fight with back story?
    Of course the overriding question now is how long will it take the producers of this franchise to cover Bruce Lee’s life – and is Danny Chan free to start filming? I for one would not miss that for the world.

    Reply
    • I wouldn’t be surprised if Donnie was the one requesting not be aged for the role. Pure conjecture though.
      I see your point about Ip not pulling any punches in the final fight, though if you remember, in the first film’s legendary “one against ten” fight, he’s actually breaking some of his opponents’ limbs.
      As for Ip Ching, he and his brother Ip Chun were consultants on the whole franchise including this one. It would indeed be interesting to know what their input was – if they were pushing for more reality, or more myth.

      Reply

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