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Ip Man 3
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by Jay Seaver

"Still a legend, but with a few challenges."
4 stars

The previews for the American release of "Ip Man 3" have been playing it up as Donnie Yen versus Mike Tyson, and that's probably good marketing even if the former heavyweight champ is credited with a "special appearance" rather than as a co-star. If it gets some more people in the audience to see Yen in what has become his signature role, that's a good thing; he may not be quite what he was when he first started playing the grandmaster of Wing Chun eight years ago, but he shows that Hong Kong can still deliver rousing martial arts action like no-one else.

This time around, it's 1959, and Ip (Yen) is living a quiet life in Hong Kong, although his son Ching (Shi Wang-Yan) just got into a fight with another kid at elementary school, and that boy's father, Cheung Tin-chi (John Zhang Jin), is also teaching his son Wing Chun, though he pulls a rickshaw to try to earn the money to open his own martial-arts school. Speaking of schools, the kids' is located on prime real estate which "foreign devil" Frankie (Tyson) wants for his development plans, and he's not above sending goons out to intimidate the principal or even burn it down. Ip and his disciples try to stand guard, but in doing that he may be taking his wife Wing-sing (Lynn Hung Doi-lam) for granted, and between her pallor and bouts of abdominal pain, that may be a worse idea than usual.

The various Ip Man films can sometimes have a questionable relationship with the actual life of the man, and I suspect that this one is no different, especially as far as him having a showdown with a crime boss who is basically Mike Tyson. On the other hand, if director Wilson Yip Wai-shun and the writers are making some attempt to follow true events, that would explain some of the messy sequencing of events and repeated story bits (although, to be fair, other Wing Chun practitioners objecting to Ip Man evolving the style is more from the films that are not pay off this series but which still run together somewhat). It's not particularly satisfying that the whole real-estate development plot gets pushed to the side along with all of its subplots and endearing supporting characters, at least initially: it often makes Ip Man 3 feel like two sequels compressed into one film, though neither would necessarily make an entire movie on its own.

A little consideration doesn't exactly fix the jarring bits, but does reveal a movie that is richer than it appears. There is an interesting movie to be made by telling the same story from Tin-chi's point of view, where he's the poor underdog forced to make compromises to achieve his dreams and raise his son and sees Ip Man as the complacent establishment in his way. It's nevertheless still interesting looking at it from the title character's perspective, especially since his responses to these various plots displays a maturity that doesn't need to be spelled out. The film is guaranteed to be chock-full of action, but it also knows you can't punch cancer. Ip doesn't need to relearn the line between pride and vanity or arrogance here, whether it be in terms of recognition for his prowess or being seen as a lowly security guard. Aside from a few moments, this Ip Man is the sort of adult figure that often gets pushed back to a supporting mentor role in this type of movie.

Yen is in fact at his best when he lets his age show a bit, as well as working with the character's humility; while he can seem placid at times, he restrains anguish well, and that makes a great complement to the look on his face in the middle of a fight: He never looks happy to be solving a problem with his fists, but he's sure letting something out. And while it may seem like a small thing, a lot of action stars might balk at the number of scenes that show him as a bit shorter than Lynn Hung as Wing-sing, even though it works for the story and allows Hung to show her as being reliable and modern in ways her husband does not necessarily match, even if she is getting a fair amount of hen-pecking and short-of-breath illness to play. Zhang Jin also impresses as the rival martial artist, both in terms of wrestling with his pride and how well he plays off Cup Can as the son who refers to him as "Master" just as often as father - it's a neat relationship. It's a nice cast all around, right down to Chan Kwok-kwan giving Ip's most famous student, surprisingly not identified by his famous English name in the subtitles, a distinctly 1950s cockiness. The exception, not surprisingly, is Mike Tyson, for whom the subtitles turn out to be equally useful whether he is speaking English or Cantonese.

As much as he's awful when acting, Yip and legendary action director Yuen Woo-ping make great use of him in his big fight scene; Tyson is like a bull about to charge when Frankie squares off with Ip Man, and there's a raw, frightening power to him than most of the guys who fit the "unusually musclebound opponent" part in a kung fu movie don't attain. The Tyson-Yen match is one of three quality one-on-ones Yen gets in the second half of the picture, and everybody winds up comporting themselves well - the one with a Muay Thai fighter (Sarut Khanwilai) starts out as one of the better-staged elevator fights you'll see before spilling into a stairwell and the final duel is quite nice as well. There's also a steady stream of fights where Yen and Zhang face veritable armies.

It would be nice if Yip and company opted to keep the camera a few feet further back and cut a little less often - the elevator/stair fight is noticeably better when it shifts to that mode - although that is the way people feel about nearly every action movie. Even if that's the case, this team knows what it's doing, blending classic and creative sequences in a sickly-produced package: There's a bit of a nostalgic gloss to this version of Hong Kong, although not an idealized one, that feels very specific to the time and place. The soundtrack by Kenji Kawai helps every scene it's in, and while the cinematography by Kenny Tse often very clearly has 3D in mind (the North American theatrical release, however, is 2D-only), it has the side-effect of allowing Yip and Yuen to define the space that their fighters operate in very clearly. There's some obvious CGI and wire work, but for the most part its screen fighters and stuntmen at the tops of their games.

We don't get that often enough, at least in North American theaters, and it's becoming rarer as the Hong Kong film industry, which does this better than anybody else, shrinks for various reasons. The chance to see this quality of martial arts action on the big screen in what turns out to be a decent movie overall shouldn't be missed, though it will likely hold up fairly well on video.

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originally posted: 01/23/16 16:32:28
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  22-Jan-2016 (PG-13)
  DVD: 19-Apr-2016

  15-Jan-2016 (12A)

  21-Jan-2016 (M)
  DVD: 19-Apr-2016

Directed by
  Wilson Yip

Written by
  Lai-yin Leung
  Chan Tai-Li
  Edmond Wong

  Donnie Yen
  Patrick Tam
  Jin Zhang
  Lynn Hung
  Mike Tyson
  Kent Cheng

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