Most of the promotional material surrounding director Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3 played up the showdown between star Donnie Yen and boxer Mike Tyson, who portrays a well-connected, barely intelligible crime boss named Frank. And while that’s definitely a selling point — who wouldn’t want to see Yen knock the snot out of Tyson? — what the promos don’t let audiences know is that the third and final installment in the trilogy packs an emotional punch as well. After all, nothing goes better than face-cracking martial arts than an enormous amount of heart.
Donnie Yen, who recently grabbed some of that sweet, sweet Disney money by signing on for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, steps into the shoes of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man once again. This time around, our hero is a little older and wiser than in previous entries, although the years haven’t slowed him down a bit. In fact, he’ll need all of this wisdom when his formidable skills are put to the ultimate test after a gang of opportunistic thugs threatens our hero’s son and his classmates. Not only is he tasked with defending his child’s school from these rapscallions, he must also contend with an up-and-coming martial arts master who feels he should represent Wing Chun throughout Hong Kong.
And while these problems definitely weigh on Ip Man’s mind, it’s his wife’s secret that will force the grandmaster the face his worst fears. Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung) has a secret that will alter her husband’s life forever. If you’re at all familiar with the man who would go on to train Bruce Lee, then you know that what awaits the couple is something that his skills cannot prevent. It’s this emotional turmoil that elevates the material to surprising lofty heights.
Ip Man 3 is a marked improvement over the second installment in the series. That’s not to say that Ip Man 2 was a terrible movie, mind you, but it didn’t have the impact of the first film. However, Yip and company have turned things around with the third movie, allowing Ip Man to fight for something more than just his country. Instead, he’s up against a foe that claims the lives of people around the world on a daily basis. It’s this emotional showdown, where not a single punch is thrown, that creates an experience beyond merely watching Donnie Yen lay waste to dozens of people in the span of just a few minutes. It’s fantastic stuff.
But let’s get one thing straight: Ip Man 3 still has plenty of jaw-dropping fights on display. In fact, it’s probably on-par with the original film, delivering some incredibly satisfying throwdowns that increase in intensity as the story wears on. Seeing Yen battle an endless supply of henchmen inside a shipyard is probably the film’s highlight, although watching him protect his wife from a Muay Thai fighter inside a very cramped elevator is another nice touch, giving Ip Man a chance to use his Wing Chun skills against an opponent who has a different set of skills at his disposal. As far as that much-touted fight between Tyson and Yen is concerned, it’s not as spectacular as it could have been. It’s still fun to watch someone so small in stature battle the boxer, who bobs and weaves like a raging bull, for three minutes, it’s still a little lackluster. What’s more, Tyson’s acting skills don’t do the sequence, or the film, any favors.
If this is truly the final installment of the Ip Man series, then Wilson Yip and company are sending the Wing Chun grandmaster off on an exceptionally high note. And while the story ends on a down note, the film itself ultimately serves as a satisfying conclusion. Ip Man fights for himself and his family instead of simply for his country, both figuratively and literally. It’s an oddly reflective journey, one that provides just as much physical force as it does on an emotional level. Given that Yen isn’t getting any younger, who knows how many more of these high-octane, go-for-broke martial arts movies he’s got in him, especially considering he’s off to fight the Empire in a galaxy far, far away for Disney. Ip Man 3 easily ranks among the gifted actor’s best work, and I sincerely hope it’s not his final kung fu masterpiece.