There are a lot of Ip Men. We've had the young one, the smiley one, the artsy one, and the little dog who won't be quiet one. Now, with Herman Yau's Ip Man: The Final Fight, we have the old one.
For those who don't know, Ip Man was a master of the Wing Chun school of martial arts. He is most famous for teaching Bruce Lee, but more than anything, he's loved (by me) for his ability to punch people 1,000 a second. In the Donnie Yen films, he also has a really fun fondness for giving people repeated slow punches to the face while appearing totally uninterested, sort of how Forrest Gump looks when he takes people down.
Ip Men: The Final Fight is not related to the Donnie Yen-Wilson Yip films. Directed by Ip Man: The Legend is Born's Herman Yau, I assume it has more in common with that film, though given the overall tone of The Final Fight, I'm not sure how that could be possible.
This is not really much of a martial arts film. There is some fighting, but it focuses more on community and the philosophy behind kung fu than its actual practice. The film is all about Ip Man in his final years, teaching a group of students in Hong Kong, having a sort of romance with a younger lady, reconnecting with his son, and eating lots and lots and lots of food, all without a drop of emotion.
There really isn't a plot. Or rather, there are too many tiny ones. This is an old man movie, in which time advances rapidly and great events come and go with little concern, all buzzing around this stoic constant like a bunch of annoying flies. The serenity displayed by Donnie Yen's iteration of the character comes off more as caustic senility here.
The real movers and shakers of Ip Man: The Final Fight are Ip Man's batch of students. One is a police officer who must decide whether or not to take bribes from local gangsters (when he asks Ip Man for advice, his answer is basically, "Hey man, do what your heart tells you"). Two of his students get married. One of them becomes a prize fighter in order to win money for his family.
This kind of slice of life reality can really work when done well, but Ip Man's focus is far too broad to ever latch onto anything long enough for us to care. Just look at the long list of adversities the film presents: Poverty, corruption, some kind of superbadass gangster who fights with hooks, other school masters, rival gangs, replacement wives, and an ulcer. It's too much. We're supposed to care about all these people because they're Ip Man's students, but his lack of apparent affection for anything damages our ability to feel affection as well, and they certainly don't provide a big enough reason to follow them on their own.
Ip Man: The Final Fight's biggest irony is that after all the training scenes and multitude of meals we see these people share, it's only when we witness them fighting as a ragtag, plainclothes unit that this feeling of community ever actually comes together. It's not that a film about Ip Man can't be just a drama. It's that the drama is so lackluster that only fights can bring it out.
And though they are few and very far between, the fighting on display is wonderful. None of it is very flashy. Like the rest of the film it is all very down to Earth and simple, but there's nothing wrong with that. Ip Man does participate in a final fight at the end which allows him an opportunity to punch his opponent 1,000 times in one second, but it's certainly not a fight the film builds up to like the title might suggest. It's status as final is merely coincidence.
That's because this film lacks the ability to build up to anything. Some ground work gets laid for various third act occurrences, but they are presented without much emotional continuity or narrative focus. Each time we revisit a thread, it takes a moment to remember what we know of it thus far. And sometimes we simply don't know what's going on at all. This is the kind of film where we see a sick guy and a healthy girl in one scene, and the next time we see them together he's healthy and she's dying in a hospital bed without any explanation. This extreme focus on events without development is often bewildering, and only ends up desensitizing audiences to any possible drama going on.
But it's not a total loss. Even when playing a character who basically acts like a living ghost, Wong is an extremely watchable figure. Without him, Ip Man: The Final Fight would be unbearable. With him, it's almost good enough to recommend. Almost.
Ip Man: The Final Fight comes out September 13 theatrically, on Cable VOD, Amazon, Xbox, iTunes, Playstation, CinemaNow, Vudu, Google Play, and Youtube.