Donnie Yen returns for a victory lap as Wing Chun master Ip Man, once more directed by Wilson Yip and ever-ready to humbly stand up to injustice and demonstrate to a fresh batch of bullying foreigners the value of Chinese kung fu. Sometimes bearing the subtitle The Finale and not to be confused with Ip Man: The Final Fight — a different take on the master’s later life featuring Anthony Wong — Ip Man 4 delivers a satisfying conclusion to the series begun over a decade ago with Ip Man.
This chapter begins with the widowed Master Ip, now also carrying the weight of a cancer diagnosis, arriving at a stadium in San Francisco to watch his student Bruce Lee (again played by Danny Chan Kwok-Kwan) in a tournament. However the real reason he’s gone stateside is to try and find a school for his youngest son Ip Ching, who’s having a bumpy ride through the education system in Hong Kong.
The front-loading of Bruce Lee early on feels a bit forced. The scene is clearly modeled after surviving footage of a fighting tournament at Long Beach in 1967 and after this the film crams almost every iconic Bruce Lee gesture, fighting move and sound effect into the first half hour — and it’s because, much like in Ip Man 3, Bruce doesn’t have a major role in the overall story. Danny Chan Kwok-Kwan plays him really well, and the character provides an excuse for some early action, but still feels like an overindulgence. It does have a purpose though. Bruce’s maverick ways of continuing to develop fighting forms and even worse, teaching kung fu to non-Chinese, makes the local San Francisco kung fu collective led by Wan Zong Hua (Wu Yue) immediately suspicious of his visiting sifu. Rivalry will be put aside though, in the face of foreign oppression, this time perpetrated by the Americans.
The story follows a similar arc to Ip Man 2, where Master Ip began as an outsider in the Hong Kong martial arts scene, before joining with his begrudging fellow masters and facing up to the colonials. The difference this time is the Chinese are all outsiders in the USA, which unites them fairly easily when push turns to shove. Perhaps because of this natural solidarity, the antagonists need to really push the envelope to earn their comeuppance.
The initial menace is provided by karate instructor Frater (Chris Collins) who teaches at the local Marine Corps base. Higher up the food chain is USMC Gunnery Sergeant Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins), a real piece of work. Both freely throw around racial slurs and have nothing but contempt for kung fu, which Chinese-American Staff Sergeant Hartman (Vanness Wu) is trying to introduce into the corps. Lurking in the background is the broader context of race relations in America in the 1960s which lends Ip Man’s stand in the face of injustice a wider-reaching significance. Whether everything shown is historically accurate or not, it fits the tone of the previous films, where some starting facts are used as a basis to build a fist-pumping crowd pleaser where the bullies are soundly defeated. If that requires the bullies to seem overblown, so be it. The fact the US Marines advocate the superiority of a Japanese fighting method — that Ip Man confronted in the first film — could have been an interesting dramatic wrinkle approached in a few different ways, but it is never brought up.
Where Ip Man 4 improves significantly on its predecessors is in the quality of these fights with western opponents. Showdowns in previous films with Mike Tyson and Darren Shahlavi were overshadowed by battles with fellow Chinese actors such as Zhang Jin and Sammo Hung. This time around all the action is consistent throughout. Shaggy-bearded Chris Collins (Paradox) has only been in a few films, but this is his best action showing yet. In contrast, clean shaven — for maximum square jawed exposure — Scott Adkins (Triple Threat) has been excellent for ages in DTV actioners like Ninja: Shadow of a Tear or Accident Man and as a bit player in blockbusters such as Doctor Strange. Hopefully this role will net him some well deserved wider recognition. As a tai chi exponent Wu Yue (A Better Tomorrow 2018 and also in Paradox) fills the initial Chinese rival quadrant of opponents and is fluidly impressive as well. After directing spin-off film Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, Yuen Woo Ping steps back into the shoes of action director here and makes these talented performers look great in motion. One breathtaking takedown to a distinctive flurry of punches is a particular highlight.
The acting side of the equation is a little less balanced. As touched on, the villains lack subtlety, mainly due to the dialogue they’re asked to spit out. On the other end of the enthusiasm spectrum, a few of the minor western characters are as wooden as a wing chun training dummy. Donnie Yen maintains the stoic humility of the previous films with a bit more nuance, keeping the heart of the film about Ip Man’s emotional journey and relationship with his son from being swept away by the action beats. He also dials back his English fluency to suit the character without sounding corny. A welcome surprise is 16 year old newcomer Vanda Margraf, playing Wan Zong Hua’s daughter Yonah. She’s a confident kid, whose ready welcome of “Uncle Ip” has a profound effect on him. The two share a quite moving scene in Ip’s hotel room that marks a major turning point for the story.
Ip Man 4 is a finale in more ways than one. Donnie Yen has announced this will be his last kung fu movie, and regardless of the finer details of what that actually means, he clearly intends to step back from action-heavy roles in the future. It’s a fitting way for him to close a chapter. As Ip Man pushed the practice of kung fu forward, Yen has done much to advance the art of screen fighting, especially with 2005’s SPL and his modern action films following in that vein.
The film concludes with a montage of greatest hits from the preceding movies. If you haven’t seen any of those it won’t carry the same weight, but Ip Man 4 works very well on its own regardless. It was in danger of being overshadowed, opening here in cinemas the same week as another finale — Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — so it was heartening to see a screening of Ip Man 4 on its second weekend still well attended. Watch it if you have the chance; it’s a fine opportunity to reflect on the legacy of Ip Man, Donnie Yen and wing chun kung fu.