Flat-footed storytelling meets fleet-footed choreography and sumptuous production values in the untaxingly fun “Ip Man 4: The Finale,” the last installment of director Wilson Yip and producer-star Donnie Yen’s glossy mythmaking tetralogy about the famous Wing Chun master.
The insistent subtitle is there for a reason: everyone, Yen included, thought that “Ip Man 3” would be his last time donning Ip Man’s priestlike tunic. Then again, after “Ip Man 2,” still the best in the franchise, Yen was also reportedly reluctant to return. A little like the great, wise, noble sifu (“master-father”) he so convincingly embodies, Yen apparently only re-enters the fray when circumstances (read: box office) leave him no other option.
The problem, then, is how to sustain a story that had largely run out of arc by the bruising climax of the last film? The solution the regular team of screenwriters — Edmond Wong, Chan Tai-lee, Jil Leung, plus, this time, Dana Fukazawa — find is to transpose the action to a new setting. If last time round the American mountain had come to Ip Man’s Hong Kong in the form of a successfully stunt-cast Mike Tyson, perhaps this time, Ip Man can go to the mountain?
First we’re told of Ip Man’s diagnosis of late-stage, terminal throat cancer — a weighty secret that gives Yen’s gravitas a center of gravity, when, in previous films his stoic presence when not landing a flurry of tenderizing blows on some unlucky midriff, could feel a bit like a powered-down robot. Then Ip accepts an invitation from his protégé Bruce Lee (Lee-alike Danny Kwok Kwan Chan) who now runs his own studio in San Francisco, to come to an exhibition match.
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Ip’s chief motivation for going is actually to look into a suitable school for his surly son Jin — not, perhaps the highest stakes ever introduced into a martial arts movie. Hence a plethora of subplots: Lee’s decision to teach Chinese Kung Fu to non-Chinese has angered the leaders of the local Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) so that they, headed by icy Master Wan (Wu Yue) are reluctant to write his sifu the school recommendation Ip needs. But Wan’s cheerleader daughter Yonah (Vanda Margraf) is being bullied by a blonde, all-American Becky, literally called Becky (Grace Englert); Becky’s bigoted father is with the immigration authority and takes a nasty interest in the CBA; and a Marine disciple of Lee’s called Hartman (Vanness Wu) hopes to introduce elements of Chinese kung fu into Marine Corps training, but must overcome the virulent racism of his Gunnery Sergeant Geddes (a suitably repellent Scott Adkins) along with karate master/grunting sidekick Colin (Chris Collins).
All of this makes for a multitude of side quests and combat display matches which do a good job of covering for the 56-year-old Yen’s fewer and marginally less agile fight scenes. And with superstar fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping on form as ever, and so many different adversaries to combine like in some supercharged game of Tekken, you don’t miss him too much, even if the film’s most spectacular single face-off is not the final one, but that between Adkins (“Chinese kung fu?” he sneers, as though spitting out a fishbone) and Wu Yue’s frostily elegant Master Wan.
Throughout, “Ip Man 4,” is a treat to look at, decked out in snazzy period duds, featuring luscious interiors and shiny vintage cars so pristine they could’ve rolled straight off the plinth at the automotive museum. Johnnie To’s regular cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung also brings a real elegance to the fight scenes. And in winky homage to Hong Kong actioners of old, the filmmakers even reinvent a few of their more garish excesses: Shonky crash zooms in to twitching eyes become graceful track-ins to pensive closeups; wire work is present, but minimal — mostly, the physics feels just about real.
On an ideological level, the film is not so dextrous. In seeking to portray the historically truthful prejudices faced by Chinese immigrants in 1960s America, the screenplay paints white America with a very broad, unrepentantly racist brush. Practically the only sympathetic American is a black student of Lee’s — but the undercurrent of solidarity between oppressed minorities when Hartman announces “We are the culture!” in front of a Marine corps dotted with black and brown faces, is barely developed. Another potentially interesting avenue left unexplored: The hideous Gunnery Sergeant who spouts nonsense about America being the “land of supremacy” (it’s like, we get it dude, you’re a racist) and the chilly Chinese Tai Chi Master Wan have, on one level, similar ideas about keeping races separate.
But political nuance is not on the menu here, as Ip and company’s final test is basically about convincing a bunch of beefy bigots that Chinese kung fu is at least the equal of karate — a discipline here oddly scrubbed of its own Asian provenance to become something of a true-blue American martial art. This conflation of Japanese and American cultures could only ever have come from a Chinese point of view, and is an unintentionally fascinating reverse example of the flattening and stereotyping of Asian cultures that American movies have often dealt in. If that practice is known as Orientalism, is “Ip Man 4” an example of Occidentalism? If so, assuming you’re OK with that, it’s a well made and enjoyable one, and a fine farewell — this time they mean it — to Yen’s serenely super-skilled sifu.