Call it providence. Call it luck. Call it what you will. At the height of their careers, a film like Ip Man 4: The Finale, couldn’t have come at a better time for actors Donnie Yen and Scott Adkins, both who’ve successfully garnered the acclaim and passable demand that their fanbases have been hoping for.
They are two of the most highly-regarded martial arts stars of today’s moviegoing generation, who share their own space on the Disney spectrum with the former playing blind spiritual warrior Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the latter getting some screentime as a heavy-hitting zealot in Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
Together, their credits bring a combined total of sixty-six years of experience; Between Yen’s Hollywood breakout near the turn of the century and Adkins’ own proliferation stemming from his successes beginining in Hong Kong cinema, it boggles the mind as to what took so long. Given the grand trajectory of both their careers and with this, being Yen’s kung fu cinema swan song, it undoubtedly makes this particular and timely juncture something to be revered.
Yen joins director Wilson Yip once again on this, the fourth and final installment of the canonical Ip Man film series, setting our story in Hong Kong four years since the passing of our protagonist’s wife, Cheung Wing-Sing (Lynn Hung). As always, at the forefront of Ip Man 4: The Finale lies the usual feats of martial arts-centric action and drama, underscored by a coinciding message arc that confronts several points of character development that culminate the film’s delivery.
As if being diagnosed with head and neck cancer wasn’t enough, Ip’s troubles extend further into grasping fatherhood while raising his other of two sons, Ip Ching (He Ye). Compelled to try his luck at transferring his son to school in the U.S. after he gets kicked out by the principal for fighting, he travels to San Diego to make his case, only to unfold a new series of hurdles in the throes of a kung fu masters’ council headed by Master Wan (Wu Yue) of the Chinese Benevolent Association.
Ip’s most prominent student, Bruce Lee, is reportedly violating the martial arts code of ethics by teaching Chinese kung fu to non-Chinese students. Consequently, the CBA chooses to hold Ip personally responsible, creating a stalemate for Ip as it cripples him from officiating the recommendation letter he needs for his son.
Racial tensions soon boil up from a violent school incident involving Wan’s daughter, Yonah (Vanda Margraf), and the bitter ideological rivalry between two U.S. Marine Sergeants (Vanness Wu and Scott Adkins), triggering an explosive turn of events that drastically threaten the fate of the CBA. With the Chinese forced to mediate their differences with one another, the final confrontation to come is a make-or-break event for everyone, including our selfless Grandmaster who is in now for the fight of his life on multiple fronts.
Yen’s portrayal of the martial arts hero continues its evolution since the 2008 film’s chronicling of our character in 1930s Foshan. While he’s definitely the highly strong and skilled pugilist he needs to be when called upon, his age is slightly more visible, especially from lasting effect the wear and tear on his body accrues, and it seems he’s all but resigned to his fate knowing he can’t afford the expensive chemotherapy his doctor recommends. His reluctance to tell his son adds to the pressure of their relationship, strained further by their fallout during a visit by Ip’s longtime friend, former head of the British Hong Kong police, Fatso (Kent Cheng).
Their duality in this instance is only the first of three presentations of one of the film’s more interesting underpinings centered on aspects of fatherhood – the mechanisms of development and cultivation that children are exposed to in their upbringing. The model repeats itself with Master Wan and how his own relationship with Yonah unfolds in comparison to her racist bully whose own father also works in government.
The film’s continued subtext also explores one of the film’s key aspects in its use of martial arts as a storytelling tool, referencing a line from our protagonist in one of the key scenes in which Ip Man trade words and fisticuffs with Master Wan, with Ip himself alluding to the idea that martial arts was meant to help confront biases. That facet of the film’s martial arts centerpiece gets some fierce counterbalance, as revealed with the introduction of one of Bruce Lee’s own students, Staff Seargent Wu (Vanness Wu), who wishes to explore the viability of matriculating Chinese kung fu into military training. His interests are met with vociferous opposition by racist Gunnery Seargent Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins), a Marine prided in his Karate training along with equally dogged sensei, Colin Frater (Chris Collins), and while both are quick to make an example of Wu, the two ultimately resolve to declare martial arts war with the Chinese, effectively targeting the CBA.
Vanness Wu’s character comes by way of actor Danny Chan’s return to the franchise as Bruce Lee, who firstly shows up a few times in the top half hour. The film doesn’t spend too much time on Lee’s arc as it deals with the impasse between himself and the CBA, but it does remain part of the underlying current for the rest of the drama as it unfolds.
Fans keen on seeing how Chan delivers the goods for a role he’s largely become best known for since invoking an iteration of the character in Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, and prominently in Shannon Lee’s 2008 series, The Legend Of Bruce Lee, won’t be disappointed. There are some definitive nuggets of nostalgia that harken back to Bruce Lee’s Return Of The Dragon, as his fight with a group of karatekas stretches into an alleyway with a nunchaku wielding fighter, played by Mark Strange (Redcon-1, Avengement).
The extent of the action is laid out accordingly for our performers in accordance, with action legend Master Yuen Woo Ping at the tip the spear once more. There are a few notable added caveats to the action that encompass the homage elements of Ip Man 4: The Finale, all of which reflect the battles Ip has had to face in the previous three films. With racist fervor explored in Ip Man 2 between Yen and action star Darren Shahlavi who played boisterous and cocky British boxer Taylor “The Twister” Miller, Adkins’ cranks it up to an even twelve, purportedly channeling the late R. Lee Emery, a la Full Metal Jacket, for the role of beety-eyed, sadistic and venom-spewing Geddes.
To say that Adkins serves up one of his most discernibly impressive performances since chewing up the scenery in career-catapulting fashion in Jesse Johnson’s Avengement would be something of an understatment. His emulation of Geddes definitely bodes with less complexity than, say, Cain Burgess, but as far as cut-and-dry characters go, Adkins’ Geddes foams at the mouth with utmost bravado, and will have you reeling in your seat.
It might also be somewhat vexing that a racist character like Geddes would appeal to something as Asian as Karate while expressing nothing but disdain for the Chinese. Japanese martial arts has long held a place in America dating back to the 1940s and was since matriculated into U.S. military training after World War II. Coupled with the tribalist psyche of a toxic male jock, it makes sense that he, and even his Asian sensei would take a more illiberal, xenophobic stance against another ethnic minority, even calling them “inferior” while staring down other Private inductees.
The stakes are raised well into the mid-point of the film as the martial arts cas lays its cards on the table. S.P.L.: Paradox co-stars Wu Yue and Chris Collins are terrific on screen during their seperate fight scenes with Ip Man, in addition to actor Vanness Wu who gets to display his screenfighting chops opposite Collins. Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster co-star, actress Zhou Xiao Fei – really the only skilled female presence in this martial arts millieu – is an immense crowdpleaser to watch.
The pièce de résistance thereafter is the hotly anticipated bout that finally brings Ip Man into enemy territory, and front and center with Barton as he sets out to avenge the CBA, and effectively standing up for all things Chinese and kung fu. It’s an exciting moment in the film, and correspondingly fares even greater compared to Yen’s hackeneyed action climax in Andrew Lau’s Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. There is a certain amount of CG near the end, though it’s not hugely visible thanks to the work done on it, in conjunction with the heightened action.
Ip Man franchise regular Ngo Ka-nin returns to the role of Leung Kan, the son of Simon Yam’s character from the film early on. Actor Simon Shiyamba (Fatal Blades) joins the fray at the top of the film as Billy, one of Bruce Lee’s students and an intergral supporting character in the film.
Unmistakably, there are aspects of Ip’s life that were never covered in all four films in their assembly as a folklore-driven franchise – almost in the vein of Wong Fei-Hung and Fong Sai-Yuk. Some believe that sort of film would grant the kind of reverence and praise one would expect of a biopic, as far as biopics go, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The construction of this franchise spans more than a decade in the making, and with so many directors throwing their names in the hat in the last twenty years, it’s become clear that Ip Man’s life and legend, much like the typical comic book or videogame adaptation, is fair game; the film’s very nature speaks inherently to the era we now live in when it comes to movies and fandom – the proliferation of elongated franchises, especially in the purview of comic books. In essence, Donnie Yen is Ip Man… to Hugh Jackman’s Logan.
The route taken by Wilson Yip and his team for this franchise may be provenly more commercial and populist in nature. Nevertheless, the films do achieve their principal objective, in adhering to the simplest of mechanisms in filmmaking: tell a story, make it substantive and epic, and as thrilling and tangible as possible. For this, audiences get a vast ensemble kung fu drama with a headliner in Donnie Yen, whose star shines aplenty these days from the mainland, all the way to his own Hollywood walk of fame handprint.
Time will tell if this trendy Wing Chun-imbued action movie franchise continues to bear more fruit with Ip Man 3 co-star Max Zhang as fans await news on an incumbent sequel to his Ip Man spin-off, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy. For now, Yen’s progression is still in the making whilst he continues to deal in the cinematic art of whoopass for future titles to come.
More than ten years chronicling three decades of world-changing events, triumphant and often tragic underdog exploits depicting a stoic, humble Wing Chun master as he walked the walk wherever he fought, Ip Man 4: The Finale is more than suited to conclude here, and complete this enduring, emotional, and consummate martial arts diptych.
Before closing, it’s also worth pointing out how gratifying it is to see Yen not only carry a film franchise, but to further himself right down to the end. Creating a franchise altogether isn’t easy, and takes time, patience, interest and money for such a think to coalesce. Sequels to films like Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords and Wilson Yip’s Flash Point and Dragon Tiger Gate never came to pass, and his attempt at rebooting a Hong Kong classic with a pair of Iceman films themselves drew less than positive critical reception, as well as controversy. If there was ever period in which Yen could carry his own titular series of films, he couldn’t have picked a more conducive time than in 2008, or a better director to do it than Wilson Yip.