If there was ever a role that has defined Donnie Yen’s career, it would be Ip Man, the renowned martial arts teacher who famously taught Bruce Lee.
It’s accurate to say that the Ip Man franchise has taken more than its fair share of creative liberties in its portrayal of the legendary Grandmaster. Since 2008, the franchise has gone from a historical biopic, a Rocky-4 lite sequel (minus the epic montage) to a Street Fighter style showdown between Ip and Mike Tyson (yes, like a cameo from The Hangover: Part II you read that correctly) for its third outing. The franchise has undergone various whiplash changes that you end up suspending all disbelief despite being ridiculously entertaining.
Which brings us unto Ip Man 4: The Finale, a film which reunites all its key original players (Donnie Yen, Wilson Yip as director and Yuen Wo Ping as action director) for one last hurrah. And while the action remains flawlessly slick and polished as ever with Yen in his quick-fisted, fighting element, this was one fight too many.
The franchise is no stranger to propaganda; Ip Man was China vs Japan, its sequel was Chinese Kung Fu vs Western Boxing (with an arrogant, cocky English boxer) and its third times’ a charm was Chinese Kung Fu vs Chinese Kung Fu featuring Mike Tyson (yes, you read that correctly). By the time number four rolls around, it’s so unapologetically ‘on the nose’ with its heightened China vs Trump America depiction that it runs into an uncomfortable danger of being out of touch in a few years.
Of course, racist attitudes and prejudices existed in 60s America, but in its search for cultural relevancy, The Finale irresponsibly and cartoonishly contrives its experiences, turning every character into an aggressively over the top caricature that’s both stereotypical and underdeveloped. Even the dialogue is not immune, with Scott Adkins’ Barton Geddes reaching absurd levels of cringe with each passing moment.
It’s so overwhelmingly distracting in an otherwise cobbled-together and overstuffed plot which sees Ip diagnosed with cancer, accepting an invitation from his former protégé Bruce Lee (Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan) to visit America, find a brand new school for his troubled adolescent son, becoming embroiled in Chinese fighting politics and fighting for the creditability of Wing Chun in the US Marines. Without any patience in taking care of its multi-stranded narrative, its runtime is spent haphazardly rushing towards its next challenge and fight sequence until it reaches its eventual finish line.
Even Bruce Lee’s introduction, which has been teased throughout the series like an MCU post-credit scene suffers the same fate. Granted it’s less problematic that Quentin Tarantino’s ill-advised depiction in Once Upon a Time in America, with Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan showing Bruce with an uncanny like remembrance and faithful recreation of his fighting tournaments. But there’s no escaping that aura of tick-box fan service, thrown into the grand finale mix in what should have been a deserved and rewarding moment and yet doesn’t feel as satisfying as it should have been. The limited screen time doesn’t help either.
What’s baffling is the film’s pretence in believing there was no ample material to harvest from. The franchise always had an emotional balance, and the tragic death of his wife Cheung Wing-Sing (Lynn Xiong) in Ip Man 3, Ip’s cancer diagnosis and his relationship with his son for its finale could have been explored with greater depth.
It easy to underestimate Lynn Xiong’s role throughout the series. Despite the occasional limitations and Ip Man 3’s tendency to entertain its silliness, her role puts Ip’s battles into perspective as the dutiful wife who struggles to maintain the normalcy of their marriage while enduring the celebrity of being married to a cultural hero. But whatever measure it conjures up for its finale is relatively weak, lost amongst the endless obstacles Ip has to deal with.
Ip Man 4 is more concerned with maintaining the cinematic myth, turning him into an immortal, God-like superhero who’s called into action whenever there’s conflict and his membership to the Avengers is one Nick Fury call away. Even Donnie Yen (as amazing as he can be) appears ageless as if it was never a barrier! Suspending disbelief is one thing and embellishing the creative licence is another, but without that effective counterbalance to vulnerably offset the physical punches and bruises, the finale injects itself with a high dose of male bravado that is all action but no substance. It leaves it desperately shallow in comparison to previous entries.
It’s the sheer lack of imagination and fresh ideas that taints its latest adventure, repeating the same tired, clichéd formulas for a franchise that has gradually lost quality with each film and is now running off the fumes. And what should have been an emotional and even poignant send-off, ends up being a disappointing end to the saga.
Dir: Wilson Yip
Scr: Tai-lee Chan, Hiroshi Fukazawa, Lai-Yin Leung, Edmond Wong
Cast: Donnie Yen, Scott Adkins, Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan, Vanness Wu,
Prd: Donnie Yen, Raymond Pak-Ming Wong, Edmond Wong
DOP: Siu-Keung Cheng
Music: Kenji Kawai
Country: Hong Kong & China
Runtime: 107 mins
Ip Man 4 is available DVD, Blu-ray and digital download from 27th April.