[IP MAN 4: THE FINALE screens Saturday March 14th at 9:40 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]
Review by Bob Ignizio
As the title proclaims, IP MAN 4: THE FINALE brings to a conclusion the series of films based (very loosely) on the life of Chinese martial arts master Ip Man. Like all its predecessors, it stars Donnie Yen in the title role and was directed by Wilson Yip, with Edmond Wong and Chain Tai Lee once again serving as screenwriters, this time in collaboration with Dana Fukazawa and Jil Leung Lai Yin.
Set in 1964, for his final adventure in the series Ip (Yen) travels to San Francisco’s Chinatown. There he hopes to find a new school for his son Ip Ching (Jim Liu), who has been kicked out of school in Hong Kong for fighting. Ip also checks in on his former student Bruce Lee (Danny Chan), who has opened a martial arts school that teaches Wing Chun style kung fu to anyone, regardless of race. This doesn’t sit well with the Chinese Benevolent Association, headed by Wan Zong-hua (Wu Yue). Wing and his fellow board members are adamant that Chinese martial arts should only be taught to Chinese people.
Ip gets thrown into the middle of this disagreement. In order to get his son into an American school, he needs a letter of recommendation from Wan. But Wan will only write the letter if Ip promises to convince his former student to do things the traditional way, something Ip refuses to do. Even after Ip defends Wan’s daughter Yonah (Vanda Margraf) from racist bullies at her school, Wan still refuses to help our hero.
Meanwhile there’s a subplot about one of Lee’s students, a U.S. Marine staff sergeant (Vaness Wu), trying to get the corps to incorporate Chinese kung fu into their hand-to-hand combat training program. This doesn’t sit too well with racist gunnery sergeant Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins), who is adamant that Karate is the superior martial art, which for some unexplained reason doesn’t push his racism buttons despite being just as foreign.
Did I mention that while all this is going on, Ip is also dealing with a recent diagnosis of throat cancer? And that his son is going through a teenage, “I hate you, dad!” phase?
And I’m still leaving out at least a couple of minor subplots. So yeah, lots going on here, much of it depicted in highly melodramatic fashion. But that’s okay, because whenever the movie starts to drag or get hokey, there’s always a killer martial arts throwdown just around the corner.
Beneath all the plot and action is some social commentary about anti-immigrant and racial discrimination, a little bit of “China first” propaganda, and a more generalized moral about the value of being more open to listening to one’s children.
Not that it should come as a shock to anyone familiar with biopics and/or films “based on a true story”, but like its predecessors in this series, IP MAN 4 takes considerable liberties with its real-life inspiration. Everything that made the real life Ip a genuine, flawed human being (notably his heroin addiction and his mistress) has been omitted in favor of making him look like a pure-as-the-driven-snow superhero.
Taken on its own terms, IP MAN 4 is a well made and enjoyable action film like its predecessors. Still, one can’t help but wonder what a more realistic portrayal might have been like.