The filmmakers who first brought the legendary Ip Man to the screen and kicked off a newfound resurgence of both Wing Chun and it’s most famous exponent return 5 years later to round off a trilogy started nearly a decade ago. With a slew of Ip-related media produced in the interim including Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013), Herman Yau’s The Legend is Born: Ip Man (2010), it’s follow-up Ip Man: The Final Fight, not to mention a mainland produced TV series airing just a couple of years ago, in leading man Donnie Yen’s own words, what knock-on effect would “over-saturation of the subject matter” have on returning director Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3?
“After Ip Man 2, I would never ever touch any films related to Ip Man. This will be my final film on the subject. Whenever something becomes a success, everyone would jump on the bandwagon, this is very frightening. Did you know how many Ip Man films are in production?” And with that, superstar Donnie Yen seemed to have made his mind-up on this being the final conclusion to the extremely successful franchise. With various takes on the legendary martial artist and his life, in which direction does this leave the original cast and crew to move in it’s own telling of Ip’s story? Returning for the third go-around are previously mentioned star Yen and director Yip, producer Raymond Wong, screenwriter Edmond Wong, composer Kenji Kawai, plus cast members Lynn Hung and veteran Kent Cheng. Franchise newcomers Zhang Jin, who portrays Ip’s challenger Cheung Tin-chi, legendary Hong Kong actor Beardy (Leung Kar-yan) and of course, former undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson all add a new flavour to proceedings and are used effectively alongside the already tried-and-tested talent of the previous two films to help craft Ip Man 3 as a very fulfilling, emotional, and at the time of writing, possible conclusion to the massively successful franchise.
When a gang of thugs running a ruthless underground fighting tournament attempt a buy-out of the school Ip’s son attends, he is forced to take matters into his own hands to stop their vicious stranglehold on the town. With a new Wing Chun challenger emerging in an attempt to swipe Ip’s title and with emotional complications for his family in the balance, Ip must navigate the murky world of corruption whilst protecting his honour and loved ones.
After the lackluster second film in the trilogy which attempted to ape the high-stakes historical grandeur of the first but offered little distinction of it own, the third, interestingly and effectively offers up a more personal, low-key tale and importantly, gives it’s leading man room to breathe. The role of Ip at this point in his career fits Donnie Yen like a fine-tailored suit. The plot gives him real moments to shine in both how well he inhabits the character and to display his unquestionable combat abilities – so with both of these boxes ticked in regards to the titular lead, the big question was how effective would it be in it’s stunt casting of Mike Tyson. Whilst his acting, even his presence alone, does at times feel inorganic to the film around him, Tyson’s role for the most part is a fun dynamic for the film to have. What we have is a very wise move on behalf of the filmmakers to only give him a small role – his portrayal of evil businessman ‘Frank’ is a more man behind-the-scenes character than having a big hand in the acting stakes of the film – the old filmmaking trick of not showing your hand too quickly, which here is infinitely more effective than having Tyson do the lion’s share of the acting. Less voice, more narrative backbone, leaving most of the expository dialogue and interaction with our leading man to his lackeys, mostly Ma King-sang, played with sleazy villainy by Patrick Tam. The fight scene he does share with Donnie is filled with some beautiful and bone-crunching movement and does not exhaust itself; short and sweet and lending itself well to the storyline.
This time, taking the action reigns from the legendary Sammo Hung who had worked on the previous two films is equally legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-ping whom, down to both his extreme talent and long-standing working relationship with Yen, was an excellent choice. Throughout the film, the audience is treated to fresh takes on Wing Chun and pits it against traditional boxing and Muay Thai with an incredible scrap in a hospital pitting Ip against previous Tony Jaa stunt double, Sarut Khanwilai. Shot cleanly and clearly, this is a dynamic and exciting direction for Yip to take the action scenes. With story elements ranging from the attempted kidnapping of the town’s children to some heartbreaking turns for both Ip and in particular his wife, Cheung Wing-sing (played once again with grace and class by Lynn Hung), the film effectively raises the emotional stakes of the characters. It also really injects a heart into the fight scenes, especially the climactic, multi-layered duel with Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang). All this matched with an effective warm piano and subtle instrumentation-led score from returning composer Kenji Kawai helps to amplify the rich emotional beats of the film and keep its melodramatic tendencies in check, which in turn makes the dramatic arc of the characters feel a lot more real. And after a lot of debate in the lead-up to the film, a certain Bruce Lee, whom the producers initially wanted to appear in CGI-form, thereby causing some legal troubles, does appear in a minor role, portrayed by Danny Chan whom reprises his role from 2008 television series, The Legend of Bruce Lee. Possibly a somewhat caricature-like take on the Little Dragon for sure, but a nice nod nonetheless to the history of the character by the filmmakers.
Ip Man 3 is better than a third film in a series has any right to be, and the filmmakers behind it made the right choice in taking the characters in the direction it chooses, brandishing this instalment with familiarity but also showing that it still has plenty of new tricks up its sleeve. After much exposure of Ip Man, his life and Wing Chun in the past few years, Donnie Yen and crew effectively navigate the busy waters to bring the fans a dramatically fulfilling, action-packed, and surprisingly subtle piece of blockbuster filmmaking.
Tom Kent-Williams is a writer, reviewer and co-host at the Podcast On Fire Network currently residing in Birmingham, England. He has been in love with Asian cinema since seeing Akira for the first time and has a slight man-crush on Chow Yun-fat. Hong Kong cinema floats his boat big time, along with synthpop, classic gaming and cups of tea in large mugs.