'Ip Man 4' review: A kung fu punch to MAGA's face
The final installment of Donnie Yen's star-making series comes to a satisfying end as Ip Man takes a journey to the west.
Not since Rocky Balboa has a folk hero’s anger felt so righteous. In Ip Man 4: The Finale, the final Ip Man film starring Donnie Yen, the celebrated master of Bruce Lee journeys west to test his own mortality against a 20th century America enmeshed in its post-war identity.
Though a mixed bag as a film, with ridiculous dialogue and overdramatic performances not out of place from a soap opera, Yen’s impressive fisticuffs and onscreen presence allows his star-making franchise to come to a satisfying, sometimes thrilling conclusion. 47 years after his death, the grandmaster Ip Man can finally rest (until the next reboot).
Ip Man 4: The Finale, out Christmas Day, is director Wilson Yip and star Donnie Yen’s final collaboration in the Ip Man series, dating back to 2008. Set in early 1960s, a cancer-stricken Ip Man (Yen) travels to San Francisco to enroll his estranged son at an American school. But upon arrival, Ip Man learns that his former student, Bruce Lee (Danny Chan) has upset San Francisco’s kung fu masters for teaching martial arts to non-Chinese. Things get worse when the masters become targets of violent racism from white Americans, including an abusive Marine, Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins).
Though Yuen Wo Ping’s signature choreography is aplenty in Ip Man 4, it’s the raw thrill of watching Ip Man’s folk heroism pitted against Trump-flavored villainy that empowers the movie. Chinese national identity and pride have always underscored the Ip Man series, but like Stallone’s avatar of Americana versus Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, the emotional stakes are far bigger for the Chinese grandmaster this time as he overcomes racial barriers against the ticking clock of his own mortality.
Unexpected of Ip Man 4 is its uniquely foreign point-of-view of American nationalism. Though it is a mid-century period piece produced by a Hong Kong studio with Chinese principal actors, Ip Man 4 is eerily influenced by the shadow of Trump and the America that’s revealed itself after November 2016. It is through the film’s ensemble of white antagonists that Ip Man 4 becomes “Ip Man vs. MAGA”; the white characters spend the movie formulating the blueprints for making America great again (via explicit lines of dialogue about deporting and keeping Chinese foreigners out).
And Ip Man is an unexpected, yet enthralling figure to anchor this story. Like Rocky, Ip is a working-class pugilist with monk-like zen. Though he is modeled after a real-life figure, his films are like a bard’s songs, in which elaborate stories stretch the truth, popular fiction eclipsing historical fact. The real Ip Man never fought American soldiers on an army base, nor did he ever face ten karate black belts nor defeat any British boxers (see the other Ip Man films for those adventures). But as a fairytale saga of Chinese pride, it’s excusable because of its sheer invigorating spirit. And, it’s just plain awesome to see one humble guy literally beat the odds with his fists.
It’s a good thing Ip Man 4 delivers on what the series is best known for, because it lacks in everything else. Cheesy performances from the rest of the cast, awkward plotting that never breathes, and clunky English dialogue (Ip Man 4 is almost entirely bilingual that there are both Cantonese and English subtitles running at the same time) threaten to make Ip Man 4: The Finale an entertaining distraction rather than the actual final chapter of a modern hero. These films really do rely on Yen as Ip Man, almost to a fault.
For more than a decade, Yen’s prowess with Wing Chun — the kung fu discipline made famous by the real life Ip Man — have been martial arts euphoria, a vehicle with which (specifically Chinese) audiences can imbue cultural pride and pent-up rage with every thunderous punch. It’s no wonder the most successful Star Wars movie to date in China was Rogue One, which starred Yen as a blind Jedi zealot. It was unfortunate that Star Wars didn’t know how to harness Yen and allow him to chain-punch Stormtroopers in the face.
As the last we’ll see of this version of Ip Man, The Finale should feel more important than it does. It should be to Yen what Logan was for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, or Daniel Craig in next year’s No Time to Die. But unlike other character-driven franchises, Ip Man 4 is resistant to challenge formula. Instead, it relies on what it knows best — Donnie Yen as Ip Man — and uses him for one final bow, where Ip Man confronts domineering American exceptionalism… and punches it in the face.
Ip Man 4: The Finale releases in theaters on Christmas Day.