It’s Master Ip’s last ride, 3.5 readers. Come along, will you?
Sooner or later, every series you love jumps the shark and while I don’t think it does here, it comes really close. It puts on the Fonzi jacket, it gets on the motorcycle, it drives up the ramp but luckily, it doesn’t take the leap over the shark’s awaiting mouth, but I fear if somehow, there is ever an Ip Man 5, it will.
For the uninitiated, Donnie Yen is one of the greatest action stars to come out of Hong Kong, the Hollywood of Asia, and he plays Master Ip or Ip Man (in English, he’d be Man Ip), the world’s foremost practitioner of the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu, which, in my laymen’s understanding based entirely on watching these movies, means he is able to deliver quick, rapid fire punches on his opponent, delivered so fast its like they’re coming out of the barrel of an Uzi.
A caveat, these movies have been my guilty pleasure for a few years, ever since I discovered them on Netflix. The plots tend to take a back seat to the stunning and stellar martial arts scenes, scenes that I watch again and again on YouTube whenever I feel a need for some inspiration.
However, in the first two films, the plot isn’t lacking. I should mention Ip Man is a real person and a popular folk hero in China, though what is true and what is legend in these movies can sometimes be hard to tell apart.
In the first film, Ip Man lives a quiet life in Foshan, China, doting on his family and practicing Wing Chun. Foshan is an enclave to which martial artists travel so they can learn, but this comes to an end when the Japanese invade and force the locals into lives of slave labor.
A brutal Japanese general/karate master often has many of the local kung fu practitioners brought to him so he can use them as practice fodder, but meets his match with Ip Man, who as you might expect, kicks ass.
Later, in Ip Man 2, Ip Man moves to Hong Kong with his family to open a Wing Chun school, but first must prove himself to the local kung fu masters, leading to what I think is the best fight scene in the series:
In that movie, Master Ip defends kung fu’s honor by kicking the ass of an arrogant British boxer who claims that his boxing skills are far superior to any Chinese martial artist.
Overall the first two flicks are solid as they are a good blend of history and action, but the third is where the series shows early warning signs of shark jumpage. In the third, Ip is called upon to use his skills to defend a school from gangsters who, through acts of violence, are trying to destroy the neighborhood in the hopes that they will be able to acquire the school’s property to use for their evil enterprise.
Throughout the film, the gang’s boss is referred to as “Frank” and at the end, in a twist, we learn that Frank is played by Mike Tyson, face tattoo and all. If you care about the plot, Mike coming out of left field kind of overturns the apple cart, but I’ll admit, it is hard to argue with the scene, because as fight scenes go, it is pretty freaking awesome:
And there’s the rub. Wherever these films lacked in plot, they more than made up for it with the fight scenes, so much so that its hard not to want those kick ass scenes again and again.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, those fight scenes are a bit lacking in Ip Man 4.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some scenes that are stylish and pretty cool. A young Bruce Lee (Danny Kwok-Kan Chan) does some exception ass kicking, and others kick ass throughout, that’s my beef. Ip Man does only a moderate amount of ass kicking throughout, though as one might expect, he does deliver the final ass kicking in the end.
In this latest and last film, Ip Man is diagnosed with cancer. It suddenly dawns on me that I should retract my dumping on Ip Man 3 because a large chunk of the movie is devoted to his wife dying from cancer, the sadness it caused with the overall theme of how life is precious and each day must be appreciated for we never know when it will be lost.
Back to Ip Man 4. Ip is raising his son alone, but alas, the boy is constantly getting into fights in school, but the fights are usually over nonsense, i.e. stolen comic books. Master Ip wonders if shipping the boy off to America wouldn’t toughen him up a bit, maybe getting out into the world and not coming home every day to sulk in his room while his father pays all the bills and takes care of every problem will toughen the boy up, helping to realize that stolen comic books are nothing to fight over.
Having been diagnosed, Ip feels time is of the essence to put his son on a better path. While in America, he reconnects with his old student Bruce Lee, who has yet to become a movie star, but his fame as an international martial artist is growing.
The local martial arts masters of the Chinese Benevolent Association in San Francisco hate this, and fear that by teaching Western students how to kick ass, the West will one day use Chinese martial arts against China, thus seeing their own asses kicked with a form of ass kicking that they invented.
Ip writes this off as paranoia, arguing that if anything, Bruce is a goodwill ambassador for China, fostering good relations between America and China by giving a window into their culture.
Alas, the masters won’t recommend Ip’s son for a good private school unless he talks Bruce Lee into stop teaching the Yankees how to kick ass, and Ip refuses.
Blah, blah, blah, long story short, a Chinese-American Marine and student of Bruce Lee, which in Wing Chun terms, if Bruce is like Ip’s son/student then this kid is like Bruce’s grandson/grandstudent seeks to introduce Wing Chun to the US Marine Corps.
The plot gets a little goofy here as over the top racist Barton Geddes, a drill sergeant who prefers his Americanized version of karate, vows to never allow kung fu to enter his beloved corps, and from there on, there’s a series of fights over whether kung fu or karate is better.
Overall, the film is silly and I do wish they had left it off at 3, where Ip Man struggles and eventually finds a way to carry on while suffering the loss of his wife, but despite the silliness, there are themes about 1960s era racial injustice (somehow Ip Man needs to get both sides to trust each other) and parenting (the daughter of a kung fu master wants to be a cheerleader despite her father’s wishes and somehow, kids must plot their own course, often in defiance of what their parents think is the right course for them.)
This film has the most English speakers in the series. There are scenes where Chinese speakers speak in Chinese and where English speak English and Ip can pinch hit in both. There are times during fights when English speakers speak in that sort of anime dubbed cadence “Ha ha ha, I will defeat you!” that is a little silly. The villains are over the top with their racism, to the point where they are one stop away from shouting, “Ha ha ha I am so racist!” which probably did happen more in the 1960s though usually, virulent racists tend to be a little subtler with their racism, gaslighting you into thinking their racist actions aren’t racist rather than coming right out and announcing their racism.
STATUS: Moderately Shelf-worthy, though I think this series has to be done. I’ll rewatch the first three films any time but there wasn’t a fight scene here where I’ll go back to watch it again and again on YouTube and that, to me, is the key to a good Ip Man movie – whether or not you want to watch the fight scenes again. But I’ll hand it to Donnie Yen in that he made one helluva series, popularizing a Chinese hero who he obviously loves very much. And when you combine the fabulous theme song with the fight scenes and Ip’s overall desire to avoid conflict but willingness to fight when there is no other way, these movies can really stir the emotions. In fact, I’m going to stop dumping on 3, because I did cry at the end of it, and not because of Mike’s face tat.
Sidenote: I know Mike isn’t going to do Shakespeare in the Park anytime soon, but after seeing his fight scene, I wonder why he hasn’t been recruited as a villain in a Fast and Furious movie yet.