In the span of only a few years, the series of Ip Man films have wooed martial arts movie fans around the globe. What impresses even more so is the number that have been produced and the frequency of their release. For the sake of discussion, if one wishes to include Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (which is not really an entry in the series given that it reportedly pays no heed to any of the films specifically entitled Ip Man) there will have been five films about the legendary founder of Wing Chun since 2008. After two adventures starring Donnie Yen (2008 and 2010) and then an unofficial prequel (2010), now arrives Ip Man: The Final Fight, from director Herman Yau, inspired by Ip Man’s latter years in the late 1940s, 50s and early 60s.
Beginning in 1949, The Final Fight sees Ip Man (Anthony Wong) relocate to Hong Kong from Foshan, China. His presence is quickly appreciated by a local union chief who implores the master to accept him as his pupil and found a new, modest school on his apartment building’s rooftop. Very soon young adults from the neighborhood are learning the now famous Wing Chun technique, from bus drivers to policemen. The film proceeds to highlight the many challenges Ip Man and his disciples face. In the case of the students, lack of jobs and anti-union employers force some to engage in tournament fights organized by a local thug named Dragon (Hung Yan-yan). For Ip Man, the issue becomes properly guiding his often hot headed students and personal health concerns.
The concept of a cinematic telling of Ip Man’s latter years when the aging master entered a new chapter of his life with vastly different concerns than invading Japanese troops that could be repelled with the help of amazing Kung fu is a sufficiently interesting one, at least on paper. Instead of dastardly Japan, the enemies are digestive problems, separation from his wife (blocked off from Hong Kong due to weird immigration regulations) union strikes and the desperation amongst his students which drive some to enter illegal fighting contests or succumb to corruption in league with gangsters. It makes for a very different Ip Man movie than fans have been accustomed to up until now. The problem is that Herman Yau’s film ends up being more a hodgepodge of various anecdotes than a cohesive storyline, anecdotes lacking the panache that characterized the previous three projects and ultimately rendering this fourth effort surprisingly dull.
For a film whose title brandishes the name Ip Man, there is a staggering amount of side characters director Yau and screenwriter Erica Lee want to develop alongside the chief protagonist. Truth be told, the earlier episodes also featured a decent amount of supporting players, yet each successfully balanced their importance to the story relative to Ip Man’s emotional arcs. In The Final Fight, there are so many little stories happening, some relating to the grander socio-political happenings of the era, that the movie feels like it is nearly more interested in everything else and just happens to feature an oddly passive Ip Man making a few comments about how Wing Chun should not be practiced for the purpose of being brash in picking fights. To put it bluntly, it does not really feel like it’s Ip Man’s movie.
Juggling as many dramatic beats as it does would not be deemed a negative if the tone was not so melodramatic. Once again, the preceding adventures were also melodramatic in their own ways, yet somehow the filmmakers in those instances were adept at having the high drama moments land with a ring of truth and help drive home character and story beats. The Final Fight is almost comically corny at times yet it does not seem accurate to assume the creators were aiming for comedy. The desire to share as much story also drastically harms the presence of whom the viewer is supposed to believe as the antagonist of the piece, the gangster named Dragon. In reality, the villain is a complete afterthought, barely showing up at all until the last 15 minutes of the movie. It is nice to see that Ip Man, when pressed to jump into action, can still take and deliver a punch (and kicks and head butts and so on…), but the final battle, whilst handsomely choreographed, carries very little gravitas. This is a shame given that Anthony Wong, probably best known to Western viewers as part of the Infernal Affairs trilogy (incidentally, Eric Tsang, also from the famous trilogy, makes a cameo), is a really good actor, only he has very little to work with.
It was revealed prior to the Fantasia screening of The Final Fight that Donnie Yen has agreed to participate in an official Ip Man 3 film, to be shot in 3D. Despite that the idea of another blockbuster hopping onto the 3D bandwagon is the last thing fans might want to hear, it nevertheless is exciting news. The unofficial prequel was not as good as the first two yet still accomplished its goals. This fourth film is without question at the bottom of the heap. Some good action and a magnetic lead actor are not enough to have everybody Wing Chun tonight.