Director: Wilson Yip
Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Wu Yue, Vanness Wu, Scott Adkins, Kent Cheng, Danny Chan, Chris Collins, Ngo Ka-nin, Vanda Margraf, Jim Liu, Lo Mang
Of the last decade and change, there have been a few action franchises that have stood out as defining of the time period. One of them was the surprise international success of the Ip Man franchise. It exploded the careers of director Wilson Yip and actor Donnie Yen while at the same time injecting a fresh dose of energy into the traditional martial arts film all around the world. It’s a series near and dear to my heart, so when it was announced that Ip Man 4 would be the last, it comes with a sense of sadness on its finality. While the film certainly cements itself as the last of the “official” series (good luck stopping the ongoing Ipsploitation subgenre though) there is a lot of fascinating approaches to the film that make it feels like this series still has a lot to say, even if the end result of this entry is more muddled than the rest. Ip Man 4: The Finale will deliver on the basics that fans have come to expect, through action and heart, but it’s some of the wild new elements that make this one such a fascinating end to the series.
The combination of director Wilson Yip and star Donnie Yen remains one of the most dynamic cinematic duos of modern action. This continues on with Ip Man 4. Yen embodies the subtle humanity and grace of this cinematic version of the real-life folk hero and he still sells the badass justice dispensing marital arts required as a kung fu hero. Yip shoots the film with a colorful old school visual scheme, even going as far as to deliver a nice Brucesploitation sequence with Danny Chan as Bruce Lee in an over-the-top alleyway fight and the returning Yuen Woo-Ping choreographs everything with popping energy that partners well with that old school approach. The action is, as expected, some of the best that one will see since the last Ip Man film. When Ip Man must fight the local master played with a fantastic screen presence by Wu Yue, the combination of Wing Chun against Tai Chi makes for a remarkable sequence worthy as one of the best of the franchise. The eventual big bad of the film, personified by all of the intensity that action star Scott Adkins can bring to the screen, doesn’t quite have the brilliance in weight or impact as the finale of the last film, but it makes for another fantastic end battle that fans will enjoy. Especially since Adkins is such a blissfully evil racist in the film.
Yet despite all of these great and expected elements of the film, Ip Man 4 does feel as though the script is misfocused. Ip Man’s story only really incorporates one new element – that of being an understanding father to his older teen son that’s paralleled through his friendship with a young Chinese girl in the US after he begins to think about his own mortality. The major issue that arises is, despite its fascinating resonance for the character, the film barely uses it. It ends up playing out as a secondary plot to the main story that has Ip Man facing off against racism in San Francisco. It’s meant to work in conjunction with the other story, similar to how Ip Man 3 used the romantic subplot with his wife in conjunction with facing his own selfishness that was mirrored in Max Zhang’s antagonist, but it never gels in the same way.
The main story, fueled by Ip Man’s trip to San Francisco to find his son a school, is far more focused on how the United States treats Chinese immigrants. Whether it’s the racism present through the brash military man Barton, again played with piss and vinegar by Adkins, or the way that the local master acts as a gatekeeper for incoming Chinese immigrants to maintain the status quo of the current hierarchy, Ip Man 4 is far more concerned with creating a theme that connects with the current state of American and Chinese identity. It’s an intriguing approach to have such a big and bold theme from a Chinese film to speak on American immigration policies and the American arrogance that comes with that, but it’s one that devours many of the other intriguing plots and characters in the film. The smaller stories about a young girl who wants to craft her own Chinese American identity that blends the two cultures or Ip Man’s own feelings of mortality, take a back seat in trying to jam too many ideas into one film. It’s ambitious, but it’s also problematic as it thins out the emotional impact to showcase the complexity of the situation while maintaining the formula of the series.
Ip Man 4: The Finale is the weakest of the series and ends on a rather mixed note, but the film still maintains the hits and heart that has made this franchise so iconic in the modern cinematic era. In a new golden age of action that includes so many modern interpretations of classic elements, it was always nice to know that one could count on the Ip Man franchise to maintain the traditional kung fu and martial arts feeling. Ip Man 4 accomplishes that much, delivering another fantastic Yen performance and a couple of instantly classic fight sequences, but a blurred script that attempts to add a lot of new ideas tends to weigh down the basics too much. It’s a great film and a nice ending to the franchise, but it doesn’t quite hit the heights of its predecessors.
The sadness I felt to see it end still leaves a mark, but here’s to hoping another new series ascends to take its place. Until then, I hope that they continue on with Ip Man Legacy side stories made popular with Master Z. Maybe kick start a new Brucesploitation series with Danny Chan? Keep it going, everyone.
Written By Matt Reifschneider