Director Wilson Yip has teamed with worldwide martial arts movie legend Donnie Yen yet again to finish up the series about the first teacher of none other than Bruce Lee in a conclusion choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, who's also given us some of the greatest fight scenes ever put to film. Ip Man 4 is about acclaimed Wing Chun Kung-Fu master Ip Man travelling to the United States after being invited to visit by his number one student who has opened up schools on the West Coast and is thriving as an up-and-coming martial arts phenomenon. While abroad, Ip Man gets the idea to enroll his troubled son in a high-level American private school, but faces challenges adjusting from skeptical local martial arts masters in San Francisco's Chinatown, bigots, and even the military.
The Wing Chun style is all about cutting down on excess movement and getting straight to the point, so let me do the same: the fight scenes in Ip Man 4 are fantastic, some of the series' finest, with many intricate applications of Wing Chun on display. Donnie Yen's Ip Man uses the style in fresh and complex ways to counter techniques he hasn't encountered before in other matches in the franchise. The film also scales back the content of the fight scenes a little bit from 3, where Ip Man was shown to take on entire gangs and crowded markets full of bad guys, as well as fighting Mike "Punch-Out" Tyson, and brings the fight scenes back to the quick, decisive duels that made the first film stand out. None of Donnie Yen's 57 years of age are present during any of the fight scenes. He looks faster, smoother, and more in-control than many untrained actors more than half his age.
It's not just martial arts mastery that Donnie Yen excels at in Ip Man 4. With much of the screentime of the supporting cast from the other films cut down, or not available due to their characters passing away out of the story, Donnie Yen gives the best performance of the movie, with strong commendations also going to Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan who plays does a sharp, energetic job playing Bruce Lee (attention Mike Moh from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Tarrantino too: this is how you pay tribute to an Asian-American icon and a martial arts legend). The only thing is that Ip Man 4 misses the opportunity to put Bruce and Ip Man together in more of the movie, which feels like a let-down, because on some level, the entire series has been building up to this point to a degree.
The first thing that stood out to me about the trailer for Ip Man was how glaringly over-the-top and historically inaccurate the content of the movie seemed. Every single Ip Man installment has stretched the truth and bent the record on what's historically accurate, but one of the largest flaws of Ip Man 4 is how far they take this content in the series conclusion. If you know anything about the real Ip Man, or even just peruse his Wikipedia page before seeing the movie, the amount that they romanticize the truth starts to get distracting. Ip Man never set foot in the USA, and yet this film features him facing off against an extremely racist Gunnery Sergeant played by another martial arts screen legend: Scott Adkins.
Much of the plot points from Ip Man 2 are repeated: Ip Man moves to a new community where he was to prove himself to a council of Chinese Kung Fu elders that are skeptical of him, the leader of which becomes his close friend after a challenge match, and the villain of the film is a larger, racist, loudmouthed fighter from a foreign country that thinks that Asians, particularly Chinese people, are weak, and uses a strength-based fighting style in contrast to Ip Man's precise, speed-based that makes use of superior angles and leverage. In both films, the bully character either kills or severely hurts Ip Man's rival-turned-friend in a challenge match, and in both films Ip Man avenges his friend's loss by winning a hard-fought battle in front of a crowd of onlookers.
It's satisfying to watch a humble, kind, intelligent guy like Ip Man who just wants to mind his own business beat a loudmouthed, offensive bully to a pulp on one hand, but on the other, we've seen the series do this exact same story and structure before. After a certain point, you had to wonder why Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen didn't just choose to create an original character inspired by Ip Man, but change the name and some of the events so that it doesn't ignore real history so much. I wonder about people watching this very popular film series and getting the completely wrong impression about who Ip Man really was and what happened in his life. If you're going to go the historical-fantasy route, then really embrace it, and have a huge fight scene where Ip Man and Bruce Lee take on a huge gang of Triad thugs in Chinatown, because why not at that point? Either choose to be more realistic or completely embrace fiction, because when you stay in the middle, you get the feeling that the finale could've been more, which is exactly how Ip Man 4 will leave you feeling.