I'm not sure what to make of Ip Man 3, the final movement in Hong Kong filmmaker Wilson Yip's trilogy. The films follow legendary wing chun grand master Ip Man, who helped the teenage Bruce Lee become a legendary fighter.
Is it an action film about the rise of gang violence in Hong Kong? A duel between two kung fu maestros vying for the title of ultimate guru? Or is it a sentimental love story about the joys of marriage?
Yip and his titular star, the brilliant on-screen fighter Donnie Yen, are to be commended for trying to give us an epic film encompassing all three thematic rubrics. But their ambition isn't quite matched by their reach. For all its grand promises, Ip Man 3 teeters uneasily among B-movie clichés.
Of course, there is a great story to be told about Ip, but the filmmakers already have given it to us with the first two installments. That's thanks in large part to Yen, an astounding martial artist. He's capable of on-screen hand-to-hand pyrotechnics that almost match the speed, intensity, and freshness achieved by Lee during his short film career.
Yen and Yip scored a stunning global sensation with Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010), making Yen a bona fide international superstar and spurring a global resurgence of interest in Ip's style of kung fu.
The two films are energetic, raw works of drama that recount the immense struggles Ip faced in two key periods in his life. Ip Man is about his experiences in his hometown of Foshan in mainland China when it was engulfed in war in the 1930s. The sequel recounts the conflicts he faced after resettling after World War II in a hostile neighborhood in Hong Kong, where he opened his first martial arts school.
Both films were about life-and-death struggles that provided them with an inner tension and level of excitement missing in the new entry.
Ip Man 3 picks up the story in 1959, when Ip has established himself as a respected teacher and pillar of the community. A paragon of virtue distinguished by inner serenity, patience, and love, Ip guards his neighbors against attacks by thugs.
Yet, despite a decisive conflict between Ip and a street gang run by an American ex-boxer (Mike Tyson in a terrible cameo), the film is little more than a pastoral portrait of Ip as a family man. There is tragedy here: Ip's first wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung), died of cancer in 1960. But the film handles her death in schmaltzy, strings-drenched scenes that ring false. Ip's wife comes off as an idealized ceramic figurine devoid of real flesh and blood.
The only real spark in the film is provided by Yen's costar Zhang Jin as Cheung Tin-chi, an upstart devotee of the wing chun school intent on knocking Ip off his hallowed throne atop Hong Kong's martial-arts pantheon.
An impoverished rickshaw driver and single dad, Cheung can't feed his family, much less take time to train for his duel with Ip, so he makes a deal with the devil and signs up as a hired thug with Tyson's brutal crew.
The two wing chun champions face off against each other in a series of scenes familiar to kung fu movie fans. It's hardly a new or fresh way to end a Hong Kong action film, but it's a welcome change from the overlong, languid shots of Ip contemplating his wife's mortality that fill up the rest of the film.
Ip Man 3 ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Wilson Yip. With Donnie Yen, Zhang Jin, Lynn Hung, Danny Chan. Distributed by Well Go USA.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, smoking).
Playing at: Area theaters.