Ip Man, the kung fu teacher of Bruce Lee, is a huge folklore figure throughout China and Hong Kong. Best known for his mastery of Wing Chun, a style of kung fu characterized by quick arm punches and strong legs, his life's story has been the subject of many different movie franchises. The most popular is the Ip Man film series starring Donnie Yen, best known to western audiences for his role as Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One.
There's almost no factual basis to any of the Ip Man films. Though technically classified as biopics, they're really more like superhero movies: An ongoing saga where a super-human figure is challenged by unusual adversaries. Like true folklore, the idea of the subject surpasses the facts of history, and the sheer thrill of the top-notch fight choreography makes that pretty forgivable.
Of the Ip Man movies — there are five in total — 2015's Ip Man 3 is something else. If only because of its central set-piece where Donnie Yen fights Mike Tyson, the famous boxer plays an American real estate developer who makes the mistake of getting in the hero's way. And Ip Man 3 is the movie you need to stream on Netflix before it leaves on December 17.
It should be said upfront that the first two Ip Man films, 2008's Ip Man and 2010's Ip Man 2, are also leaving Netflix on December 30. While you can enjoy any of the Ip Man movies in a vacuum, it's still a serial, and Ip Man 3 only makes more sense when you've been formally introduced to Ip Man's world and seen him square up with Japanese soldiers and English boxers.
With that in mind, Ip Man 3 picks up in 1959, with Ip Man living a quiet family life in Hong Kong. But trouble begins when Frank (Mike Tyson), an affluent American, seeks to buy the land belonging to Ip Man's youngest son's school. And he'll take it by force, thanks to his support by the local Triad gangs. That's when Ip Man is forced to become the protector of his neighborhood, which soon leads to a one-on-one battle with the star of The Hangover. Oh, also, Bruce Lee (played by Danny Chan) is also introduced to play a bigger role in 2019's Ip Man 4.
Like any of the other Ip Man movies, Ip Man 3 is as absurd as it is earnest. It's a fact that this story never happened in real life — Ip Man never fought an American property developer in a totally sick clash of kung fu and boxing — but the movies admirably commit to the audacity of its imagination. There's even a kidnapping subplot. Ip Man 3 also dives into melodramatics like a TV soap opera, as Ip Man's crusade makes him estranged from his wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung).
(Oddly enough, their real story is full of heartbreaking drama that is the perfect fuel for a movie on its own. In real life, the two separated when Communism succeeded in the Chinese Civil War, and the closure of the borders between China and Hong Kong in 1951 kept them physically separated until her death from cancer in 1960. For whatever reason, none of this is in Ip Man 3.)
Audiences unfamiliar with the Ip Man series will undoubtedly be arrested by the movie's action choreography and direction. The series set a gold standard for Hong Kong action in the 21st century. Its killer combination of genuine physicality (Donnie Yen actually knows Wing Chun and other martial arts) and intelligent camera direction is foreign to audiences informed by shaky camera shots and quick cuts that populate American action movies.
That's a big part of why it's so damn cool to see Mike Tyson under this framework. His fight scene with Donnie Yen is a cultural clash on multiple levels, not just boxing versus kung fu. How a monster like Tyson moves under the direction of acclaimed choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (also the master behind The Matrix and Kill Bill) is a sight to behold. It's also why it's so disappointing when the fight is cut short — I have to wonder if either Yen or Tyson demanded not to not "lose" in the script.
In 2016, I interviewed Donnie Yen about his fight scene with Mike Tyson, and he revealed it took three weeks to create. "That’s the culture over there," Yen said. "We spent a lot of time perfecting every shot. We spent three weeks. Compared to my very very first martial arts film, 33 years ago, when I spent a whole month shooting a scene, three weeks is still nothing. A long time right? But it was a pleasant experience for me."
On Tyson, Yen said:
"I’m a big fan of his boxing, I’ve watched every single one of his fights, and I know that fighting on screen there’s an opportunity to create one of the best fight scenes in film history. So I was very excited, but at the same time, I know what kind of fight that I’ll be getting into. I want to leave the set safely and go back home. Mike is a wonderful guy, and very good to work with, and very professional about it, and we had a great experience."
Ip Man 3 is streaming now on Netflix until December 17.