Arriving as proof no one needed that typical Western franchise concerns are paid just as much mind by Chinese production studios, Ip Man 3 is like the Spider-man 3 of kung-fu movies: Simultaneously overstuffed and under-ambitious, the film boasts a procession of set pieces and villains that tend to distract from its central figure’s evolution as a fighter and a person.
This latest, and likely last, installment of director Wilson Yip and producer Raymond Wong’s populist action-historical saga opts, poignantly, for a less nationalistic tone, one more actively critical of colonialist corruption in a British-occupied Hong Kong. Once again, Donnie Yen plays Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man, this series’s Peter Parker and Spidey rolled into one: a hero, a bit of a nerd, a romantic, and a moral compass to guide a nation’s eroding understanding of heroism (lest we forget, Sam Raimi’s own blockbuster trilogy corresponded with the jingoism of the Bush II years).
The year is 1959 and Ip Man has settled down with his wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung), and young son, Ip Ching (Wang Yan Shi), living in modest acceptance of the fame that being both a grandmaster and a well-known cultural figure has brought him. His quiet domestic life is initially interrupted by the arrival of a young Bruce Lee (Danny Chan), debuting in this series with a cameo involving his bid to earn Ip Man’s tutelage.
But this plot is soon subjugated by one involving a hack martial artist and gangster bullying a local school’s leadership into handing over their land—a boilerplate defend-the-deed narrative. Ip Man 3’s trifurcated gallery of bad guys is filled out by a buff former boxer, Frank (Mike Tyson), and a rickshaw-driving dad and secret kung-fu pro, Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang Jin), who sees beating Ip Man and laying claim to the superiority of his own form of Wing Chun as he and his son’s only path out of poverty.
Yip’s film can seem like it’s biding its time until its two top-billed heavies (Yen and Zhang) inevitably go one on one, but like Raimi’s energetic trilogy capper, there are many mini climaxes along the way. An intricately staged battle against the gangsters at a construction site makes for a good old-fashioned scaffolding showdown, replete with resourceful props and multi-level action; a comically huge office space transforms into an industrialized boxing ring when Ip Man clashes with Tyson in a scene that riffs on the former prizefighter’s legacy of first-round knockouts; and there’s an entirely random bare-knuckle battle with a barefoot Thai fighter in an elevator.
These set pieces are overseen by Grandmaster choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, rather than Sammo Hung, who handled the last two films, and the shift results in action sequences that privilege agile grace over brute force, an aesthetic complement to this film’s focus on a more emotional Ip Man. But this change is also represented in Ip Man 3’s weakest subplot, a true-to-life account of the cancer that took Ip Man’s wife, treated here more as a mere catalyst to the grandmaster accepting his own fetish for fighting.
Solid as the action can be, and impressive as Yip’s gift for ferrying a lot of plot through relatively economical 100-minute runtimes generally is, the real reason to see the Ip Man movies remains Yen, who’s still finding a certain magnetism, even emotional resonance, in a performance that’s just this side of blank. His Ip Man has borne witness to a changing region and measured those changes against his own, as a way of keeping his moral bearings.
And with expertly judged adjustments for this character across three distinct films (here, it’s the convivial warmth Yen lets overcome him in scenes he shares with his family that feels new), the actor’s sketched not only an iconic rendering of an important historical figure, but one broadly representative of Hong Kong’s evolution through the 1940s and ’50s as well. It’s a performance so good that it’s a shame Yip’s films have never strived to be more than briskly entertaining hagiography, even here settling for an existing action-film template rather than pushing this franchise a bit further.