Papa Vinyard here, and I got somethin' for ya...
This review originally appeared at RighteousFilm.com
There sure are a lotta Ip Man movies out there: within the past five years, we've had two Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip films, the Wong Kar-Wai-directed THE GRANDMASTER (which finally hits U.S. screens this weekend), IP MAN: THE LEGEND IS BORN (which starred Dennis To as the titular figure), and now, IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT is premiering on VOD, leading up to a theatrical release next month. THE FINAL FIGHT is written and directed by the same team as THE LEGEND IS BORN, Erica Li and Herman Yau, respectively, but they've replaced To with Anthony Wong to play the elder version of the legendary martial arts instructor. I have not yet seen THE GRANDMASTER or THE LEGEND IS BORN, but I feel fairly certain that what we get here is a worthy addition to the legacy of Ip Man biopics, and stands out on its own due to its acting, the strength of the traditional craft involved, and, here and there, a stylistic touch or two that adds plenty without calling too much attention to itself.
This one is primarily focused on Ip Man's experiences after World War II, when China's weakened economy inspires him to move to Hong Kong. He refuses to open a school there, but takes on a handful of very loyal disciples, including a morally-conflicted cop, a cocky young prison guard, and a couple of wholly capable, tough women. We witness several events from the last two decades of Ip Man's life, including his wife's brief visit from Foshan, his struggle with the underground element of Hong Kong's "Walled City", and, later, his final meeting with his most famous student, Bruce Lee.
The film has some strong fight scenes, including an introductory one where Ip Man challenges a fighter to knock him off of a sheet of newspaper, and a later one involving a "dragon dance" street ceremony, but it's not as action-heavy as the Donnie Yen IP MANs. This one seems more concerned with painting a realistic, albeit rose-tinted portrait of this massively influential teacher, and those in his orbit during this portion of his life. Ip Man's already a huge name at this point in time, so a lot of his behavior is a direct response to his idea of what people expect from him. He seems more concerned with passing off a good message to his followers than he is regarding his own well being, or even his family. Even though he takes a mostly non-violent stance in his own life, whenever someone he cares about is threatened, he springs into action. He's open to the new developments of mid-20th century Hong Kong, but still hangs on to his traditional values in this new setting: as he says, "a life should be like a tree, its roots firmly placed in the ground, with the leaves expanding outwards."
Anthony Wong is a huge reason for this movie's success. He plays Ip Man as a quiet, humble guy who, through decades of discipline and training, just happens to be able to be one of the best martial artists around. When the film opens, he's already suffering from a crippling stomach virus, and Wong effortlessly injects a sense of weakness and chronic pain into his performance. When he throws down and engages in some good, old-fashioned fisticuffs, he's believably fast (with assistance from some sped-up footage), while conveying the notion that his talent is mostly based on his sense of inner-peace and righteousness. He's an elegant, gentle old badass, and Wong is very good at finding a tempo that gives both the legend and the real human being a chance to shine.
The narrative isn't super-tight, as it tries to follow Ip Man's story as well as those of his closest students, but there are a ton of interesting scenes, and it never gets boring. While it's not the most original arc in the world, I liked the subplot of the well-meaning cop who is open with Ip Man about the corruption in his department, and his own temptations towards advancement and money. The hotshot prison guard gets an early scene where he picks a fight that maybe didn't need to go down, but after a dressing-down by Ip Man, that plotline deviates into something completely different and more unexpected. There's a beat where one of Man's female students starts defending her wounded husband WHILE PREGNANT; talk about some effortless female empowerment for your ass. There's a section devoted to Ip Man's relationship with a young singer who cares for him after his wife passes away, and it's a little sappy, but Wong's acting (and the harsh reaction to her by his students) makes it pleasant to watch. Zhou Chuchu, as the singer, deserves credit for conveying her sudden devotion to Ip Man in such a way that it actually seems believable, or else her scenes would be disastrous and corny. Eric Tsang (Wong's costar from INFERNAL AFFAIRS) also makes a welcome appearance as the head of a rival school who, surprisingly enough, reveres Ip Man and is unthreatened by him. A scene where the two fail miserably to hide their sparring session from Man's students is simultaneously funny and awesome.
Stretching the narrative from 1949 to the mid-to-late '60s dilutes the impact of any one plotline or relationship, but the film moves at a good pace, and is never boring. The students, nearly just as central as Ip Man himself, are interesting and well-cast, and their stuff feels like segments from people's lives instead of neatly tied-together arcs. Does it have the action-movie thrills of Yen's IP MANs, or (what I'm guessing is) the grace and visual complexity of Kar-Wai's THE GRANDMASTER? Probably not. But it is a sincere, well-made depiction of the latter part of Ip Man's life, and it does not deserve to be dismissed as "yet another Ip Man movie".
Oh, and an actor playing Bruce Lee makes a late-movie cameo. You don't see his face, but the fact that it's supposed to be him is so spelled out that it kinda proves distracting. Still, it leads to one of the more badass elements of the film, the setup of a real home video that the elder Ip Man made of himself practicing with a wooden dummy. Watching that actual video during the credits is an unexpected treat that grants some weight onto the handsome, entertaining production.
IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT is available now on VOD, and will be released in theaters on September 20th.