Recommendation: The action is good and it looks great, but the writing is poor and the characters are thin. Not the worst thing to watch, but doesn’t end the series too gloriously. 5/10.
IMDB Synopsis: The Kung Fu master travels to the U.S. where his student has upset the local martial arts community by opening a Wing Chun school.
Ip Man 4: The Finale follows suit with the rest of the series in that it features some truly wonderful martial arts choreography (by Yuen Wo-Ping) and top notch showmanship by superstar Donnie Yen. Unfortunately for Ip Man 4, the emotional stakes and depth of the earlier films are gone, replaced with a slapdash of elements that include caricatures of racism (albeit rooted in historical reality) and familial stoicism. While it doesn’t seem like a blatant cash grab, or the Hong Kong equivalent, it certainly isn’t on par with the other three chapters. That isn’t to say that Ip Man 4 doesn’t deliver the hand-to-hand choreography it’s known for and it scratches an itch for those looking for some newer martial arts movies.
The first act of the film sets up two storylines: Bruce Lee (Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan)—a student of Ip Man (Yen)—has made a name for himself in San Francisco as a young firebrand, teaching Wing Chun to Westerners, earning the ire of the Chinese Benevolent Association, who believes that Chinese ways should stay within the community. At the same time, Ip Man finds out he has advanced stage cancer, so he travels to San Francisco in hopes of enrolling his son in a school there, with the help of the CBA, of course. As the two plotlines come together, the infighting between Ip Man and the CBA is set up as a false antagonistic narrative (with a charged and intense coffee table fight between Master Ip and CBA’s head, Master Wan (Yue Wu). But after Master Ip saves Wan’s daughter Yonah (Vanda Margraf) from a gang of Rockwellian racist teens (over the cheerleading squad), the real villain rears its head: broad stroke racism.
The plot then devolves into a series of comments on modern day racism through the lens of 1960/70s era immigration: INS raids, adherence to superior military martial art Karate (which is also Asian, though?), and the myth of the American Dream for the Chinese (who helped build the US railroad system with essentially slave labor). Fortunately, Ip prevails in a series of battles, emerging relatively unscathed, against hot headed, red blooded military men that are 30 years his junior. Eventually, Master Ip does restore balance to the world, with racism solved, student Bruce Lee on the rise, and his son’s schooling future secured.
While a great number of the disparate parts of the story are based in reality—Master Ip’s cancer, Bruce Lee’s teachings, generational racism, CBA-like organizations—Ip Man 4 is pure fiction. The story elements are purely deployed as window dressing to get Donnie Yen into Yuen Wo-Ping’s fight choreography. And despite this, the film still entertains on the merits of its strengths, but isn’t exactly a must-see. But if you’re looking to scratch that Kung Fu itch, the Ip Man series has more beauty in its set pieces than some of its contemporary franchises that rely more on brutality (Ong Bok, The Raid, and John Wick’s Gun-Fu).
Find it here on Netflix.
MVP: Of course it’s Donnie Yen. He still got it, even after a couple Hollywood credits, he returns to his beloved franchise.
Highlights: Donnie Yen fighting in an alley has that tongue-in-cheek fight encounter the series always includes. Vanda Margraf isn’t bad in her first role. Would love to see more seated, dining table oriented fights.
Director: Wilson Yip
Studio: Mandarin Motion Pictures Release date: July 20, 2020 (Netflix XUSA)