A few years ago I got heavily into martial arts movies. Sure I could BS my way around the subject but it was more knowing Tarantino than anything else. Needless to say I was late to the game. It wasn’t until the Dragon Dynasty DVD releases that I really got into it. After seeing Hard Boiled I quickly discovered older Jackie Chan, old kung fu movies and eventually SPL (released as Kill Zone). Directed by Wilson Yip it is the first movie I saw starring Donnie Yen. Becoming one of my favorite movies ever (no hyperbole) I quickly became a fan of this director/actor duo. Together they would continue to impress with Dragon Tiger Gate and Flashpoint before making Ip Man. Based on Wing Chun master Ip Man this semi-biogrphical film was a massive hit. It spanned not only an equally fun sequel but a slew of imitators. Now after 5 years working apart Wilson Yip and star Donnie Yen have reunited for Ip Man 3.
The film fast forwards to 1959 Hong Kong. Master Ip is needed to protect Chi Yan Primary School, a school his son attends. Constantly harassed by gang leader Frankie (Mike Tyson, really) Ip and his students devote their time to protecting the school. Ip also meets a local Wing Chun practitioner, Zhang Jin (Cheung Tin-chi). A rickshaw driver trying to open a Wing Chun school Zhang Jin is both an ally and a rival to Ip Man.
Oddly enough Zhang Jin emerges as the film’s most interesting character. Neither a best friend to Ip nor a dastardly villain Zhang is just a guy trying his best for his son. Sure he isn’t above accepting money for assaults or participating in illegal fighting for money but he does have a set of morals. It isn’t until the final act of the film where he really is at odds with Master Ip. It is a bit rushed but it makes sense. He’s just a man finally letting his jealousy consume him. It certainly makes for a good antagonist for the virtuous Ip Man.
Portraying Ip Man as a beacon of hope is nothing new. At this point he’s expected to be a kung fu Gandhi. Still doing nothing but good deeds and dialogue consisting of “The most important thing is family” should make Ip Man annoying. Somehow writer Edward Wong is able to avoid this trap. For me a part of it is that he is how much of a role model he is. While US action movies have good guys they all have a bit of moral ambiguity. Captain America is questioning the government in Civil War. Superman kills and causes mass property damage in Man of Steel. Batman shows signs of obsessive compulsive and split personality disorder. Ip Man though, Ip Man is different. He does what’s right no matter what. Even when his pride and skill is called into question he chooses to take care of his ill wife above all else. Again it sounds cheesy but this feels admirable more than anything else. I’m sure it helps that these acts of kindness and interspersed with martial arts action.
For the first time in the series the action director isn’t Sammo Hung. Instead these massive shoes are filled by legend Yuen Woo Ping. The director of the upcoming Crouching Tiger 2 he has done action choreography for Fist of Legend, Kill Bill and Fearless. As his pedigree suggests the fight scenes are top notch. Slightly riffing on past movies we get some fun fights like the one vs. a zillion battle (ala the first film) and the three minute fight against Tyson (similar to Ip vs Hung Chun-nam in Ip Man 2). The most interesting fight scene takes place in an elevator. Not only is it hard hitting but he is able to not just showcase martial arts but even the characters and theme of the film. It tells a story as opposed to being just fighting. Only someone as talented as Yuen Woo-Ping could pull off such a feat.
Midway through the film something hit me, this movie has the plot to Breakin 2. The odd thing is I kind of dig it. No longer a serious biopic Ip Man 3 plays much more like an old school kung fu movie or a superhero movie. If you can keep this in mind it totally works. Sure it can be a bit corny and it doesn’t break ground the way the first film did. Thankfully a collection of good performances and great action choreography help make it fun. If they make any more Ip Man movies I hope they continue in this direction. With the introduction of Bruce Lee I can only hope we get Ip and Bruce: Time Traveling Cops.