Across eleven years and now four films, star Donnie Yen and director Wilson Yip have created a sort of mythologised biography of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man, best known for being the teacher of Bruce Lee. This fourth and final chapter is, like the rest, at best loosely inspired by Ip’s life.
In 1964, Ip discovers he has throat cancer. Believing he has little time left, he travels to San Franciso, to see his student Bruce Lee demonstrate Wing Chun at a tournament and to find a boarding school for his son. He ends up part of two feuds, one between Yonah (Vanda Margraf) the daughter of Master Wan, head of the Chinese Benevolent Society and another girl (Grace Englert) at her school and the other between a student of Wing Chun who wants to get it introduced into army training and his racist commanding officer Geddes (Scott Adkins).
There are some immediately apparent problems with Ip Man 4 set against its largely excellent predecessors. Most obvious is the prevalence of English. Donnie Yen’s English is very good in real life, and his composed performance as Ip Man barely changes from what he’s been doing with the part since 2008, though he’s now far too young for the part, as this film is set when Ip was 64. The rest of the English language acting suffers from a combination of cast, director and screenwriters working in their second language. The writing is notably clunkier in English, and every line, even from English members of the supporting cast, is awkward.
While the acting is variable, and the delivery clunky, there is a good message at the heart of Ip Man 4, ultimately it’s a film about prejudice and ignorance, framed through the racism of both Yonah’s bully and Geddes towards Chinese people and their martial arts. Its response, at least when it comes to Geddes, is to punch the racist until the credits can roll triumphantly, which is a perfectly reasonable—if unsubtle—approach.
Ultimately, the audience of this film is unlikely to be coming to it for either the acting or to see a nuanced message about using Wing Chun to beat up racism. The action is what we’re here for. Chris Collins gets several excellent showcases as Adkins’ right hand man, notably in a long sequence at the Chinatown Autumn festival, where he takes on several masters in turn. Scott Adkins—the UK’s own martial arts movie star—struggles a bit with his American accent, but the fight between him and Yen is worth the wait. Yip and action director Yuen Woo-Ping largely eschew gimmicks and opt for simple exchanges of technique between Yen and Adkins, it’s the kind of showdown fans will have been hoping for.
Ip Man 4 isn’t quite the finale it could have been. The decision to use so much English dialogue lends an awkwardness to much of the film, but it’s held up by Yen’s charisma and by some outstanding action sequences.