Ip Man 4: The Finale
Donnie Yen returns for the fourth, and final, film chronicling the life of the iconic Kung Fu Master, Ip Man. The series’ trademark action returns, along with a poignant story. Come inside for my full review!
Ip Man 4: The Finale takes place in the 60s, following up from the previous film shortly after Ip’s wife has passed away. When his rebellious son gets into a fight at school, and subsequently expelled, Ip travels to San Francisco to (on an invite from his famous student Bruce Lee) to find a new school in America for him.
As the aging Master learns about his cancer (due to smoking), he’s more anxious than ever to find a place for his son. Finding a school in the States, however, is a bit trickier than expected. Ip’s former student, Bruce Lee, is making the wrong kind of waves with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. His sharing of Chinese Kung Fu with everyone isn’t exactly welcome. In order to get his son into a local school, Ip needs a letter of recommendation from the chairman of the Benevolent Association. Chairman Wan, however, makes it clear that unless he convinces his former student to stop what he’s doing, Ip Man won’t get the letter that he needs.
Meanwhile, Wan’s daughter must deal with jealous, and racist, classmates out to make her life more difficult. Couple this with a racist Drill Sergeant on the local military base who is desperate to prove his violent Martial Arts teachings are superior to Kung Fu, and Ip Man has his hands full of problems. From roving bands of Karate students looking for trouble (that’s not a joke or exaggeration), to prejudice on all sides, Ip Man must fall back on his legendary skills in order to protect his heritage.
Story And Action
For the most part, Ip Man 4 feels like the most straightforward entry in the franchise so far. The stakes are clear fairly quickly, but unlike the previous film, The Finale offers up a more coherent story that goes beyond simply giving the characters excuses for massive fight sequences.
By and large it actually feels like the fight scenes take more of a back seat this time around. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of action throughout the film (with a couple random fights that come out of nowhere), but they take on a different tone than they have in the previous films. It’s hard to explain, but they feel more muted/realistic; not nearly as over the top.
Thanks to the iconic choreography of Yuen Woo-ping, the fights are still impressive and with plenty of “holy crap” moments, and more than dynamic enough to get martial arts fans all riled up. In many ways, the fights feel indicative of the story being told. This isn’t simply about the flashiest techniques, especially as we see an older Ip Man in action, but about showing the strength of community and heritage in the face of prejudice.
Even though it’s set several decades in the past, the lessons on display are still (distressingly) poignant in today’s age. It’s easy to feel the rage and helplessness as the characters are senselessly targeted. Wrapping this up in an action film allows some of those feelings to vent as we get to see the perpetrators get their asses handed to them in grand style. For a series that’s never shied away from dealing with social issues it seems fitting that this final film deals with this so directly.
The only issue I have with the story, however, is how it handles the biographical elements. To be fair, the Ip Man series has always played fast and loose the real life story of Bruce Lee’s Master, but that’s not really my complaint. The problem seems to be that these elements are almost tacked on. The cancer reveal comes at the very start of the film, and it’s only real effect on the story comes later as a way to get him to connect with his rebellious son.
It’s almost an afterthought, and when he ultimately returns to Hong Kong we’re treated to a glimpse of his latter days and the moment he lets his son videotape his skills in action. Being this is the only time (in real life) the Grandmaster was captured on film, it seems like a fitting end to the series overall. Even this, however, feels added on without the emotional build-up necessary to make it impactful.
By far, the most interesting aspects of the story come from how it deals with racism and interpersonal problems within the Chinese Benevolent Association. These are so interesting that it makes those biographical elements feel even more of an afterthought.
As has been the case with previous films, the biographical elements take a backseat to just about everyone else. While it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film, it does take away some of the emotional impact. Even so, if you’ve enjoyed the previous movies, you’ll most definitely enjoy this one and will find it worthwhile to check it out in theaters (if it’s playing near you).