Ip Man 4: The FinaleReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/27/19 13:12:08
Say what you will about the politics of this film series and its stars, but it is immensely satisfying to watch Donnie Yen punch a racist in the face fifty times in a row in the space of something like twenty seconds. "Ip Man 4" also had the best use of Bruce Lee as a character this year, even if it's clearly not the best movie to use him as a character. As for the rest of it, well, enjoy the parts with racists getting punched in the face.This one posits Ip Man (Yen) making a trip to San Francisco in 1964, the ticket paid for by former student Bruce Lee (Danny Chan Kwok-Kwan), who would like to have his teacher watch him compete in a local karate tournament, although he does not actually resolve to go until son Jin (Ye He) is expelled from school for fighting, with the headmaster recommending Man follow the example of many Hong Kongers who have sent their children to study abroad to not just learn academic and language skills, but self-reliance. He goes to look at schools, but will need a letter of recommendation from Wan Zhong Hua (Wu Yue), chairman of the Chinese Benevolent Association, who in exchange would like Man to convince his former student to stop teaching Chinese martial arts to non-Chinese, something he is not inclined to do. Meanwhile, one of Lee's students, Hartman Wu (Vanness Wu Chien-Hao), a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marines, would like to introduce Chinese martial arts, but faces resistance from superior officer Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins) - who is both racist and a partisan of karate, taught by Colin Frater (Chris Collins), while Wan's daughter Yonah (Vanda Margraf), a student at the school Man is checking out, has earned the ire of a classmate for making the cheer squad, and Becky's father Andrew (Andrew Lane) has a position at the Immigration and Naturalization Service that can make things very difficult for the people in Chinatown.
Fans of today's not-exactly-blockbuster tier of action movies will notice a lot of impressive names in the cast, and with action director Yuen Wo-Ping returning to handle the fight scenes, that half of the movie can be taken as handled. It's the pieces connecting the fights that have often been what separate the best entries this series (and the numerous other films about this grandmaster that have come out in the past decade or so) from the rest, in no small part because Yen's respectful portrayal can make Master Ip something of a sphinx rather than a man with a distinctive personality. This time out, it plays less as reserve and more as using him as a blank slate on which to project certain virtues. He's got a nice moment or two as he wrestles with a cancer diagnosis or with how his strict parenting runs counter to the instincts he feels when watching the Wans argue, but the film is not particularly built to make that the central story, and as such both Yen the actor and Ip the character seem to be hanging back, reacting in a somewhat detached way.
Instead, the movie kind of dances around what it's mostly about, the Chinese emigrant experience. It's a fairly solid spine for a movie like this if the filmmakers were more inclined to deal with it directly, especially since the question of whether to send a child away to a place that offers more opportunity but will likely subject them to discrimination or even violence is one that persists 55 years later, even if the weightings are somewhat different. That's before you get to how that applies to later-generation kids like Yonah, as American as they are Chinese (or at least thinking they should be so), or the philosophical differences between the martial arts masters in the CBA or the integration represented by Bruce Lee. Visually, the bright colors in America and its Chinatown are an intriguing contrast to the kind of dingy Hong Kong. It's not a debate the film engages in much, even if Ip making this decision is ultimately what the film's about, and while that may be for the best (Yen does not give a stirring speech about how Chinese should reject foreign temptations and instead dedicate themselves to their homeland), it does leave the movie kind of adrift as it goes on.
It doesn't help that the English-language acting is not great at all here, a real issue for a film that is 80% England doubling for San Francisco - as real and deplorable as the examples of American treating the Chinese characters terrible are, the acting being cartoonishly broad works against it for English-speakers, although it's not as though the scenes in Chinese are a whole lot more restrained. There are some fun performances, though: Wu Yue does a nice job of splitting the difference between Wan being righteously angry but in a fun movie, and Chan Kwok-Kwan seems to be having a blast as Bruce Lee, cocky and putting on a show but also clearly knowing what he's doing. There's a moment mid-fight when his face just has "oh, hell, another guy with nunchucks" all over it that's funny as heck but also kind of character-defining. Simon Shiyamba, mostly used as a stuntman, brings enough enthusiasm that hopefully more people will start giving him lines.
The fights are decent, though Yen has maybe lost half a step and Scott Adkins isn't quite the sort of charismatic opponent to bring him to the next level as Sammo Hung or Max Zhang. The choreography by Yuen Wo-Ping is good enough, at least, doing a fair job of highlighting the differences in techniques between older masters and younger ones. It's rather formal, though, a lot of people showing up at a relatively open space for the express purpose of dueling. Things do get intense, and director Wilson Yip Wai-Shun knows how to get things cranked up for the big throwdowns.The film ends with flashbacks of some of the biggest moments of the previous three films, and in doing so reminds the audience that those movies had big, creative action scenes in a way that this one doesn't. It's still good action in a fairly workmanlike way, and there is just enough good material underneath that I can talk myself into it at least having interesting intentions, but it seems good that this film is billed as "The Finale" - they've squeezed more material out of this man's life than is believable (these big fights would have taken place when he was 71), and the inspiration seems well and truly faded.
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