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Action Drama Film Review 2016: "Ip Man 3"(Directed by Wilson Yip, Starring Donnie Yen, Mike Tyson)
Donnie Yen strikes again! Seeking to finally dethrone his contemporary Jet Li as the reigning martial arts and action star, he bites back with a vengeance in a film that will no doubt resonate for longtime genre fans but may leave outsiders rather dizzy and disoriented. The third film and reported franchise closer adds an unexpected bit of star casting in the form of Mike Tyson to help pull off the towering feat of closing up dangling plot threads and completing Donnie Yen's arc as the legendary Ip Man. While it unfurls with a steamrolling pace, and the deliriously staged martial arts sequences are grander and more thunderous than before, the movie suffers from trying to introduce new struggles for our low key hero to overcome which causes the structure to appear messy and ham-fisted in pursuit of the next great battle. While it is certainly not the fault of our leading man, Director Wilson Yip ought to have employed the less is more mindset when constructing the pieces that ultimately close the loop on our character's destiny.
Here's what works: Yen as Ip Man retains his sincerity and charm from previous installments and, in many ways, adds more texture and dimension to his performance than before. Faced with several insurmountable obstacles - his wife's quickly advancing cancer and the attempted destruction of his Wing Chun school - his characterization reveals a man never quick to react rashly or to make decisions based purely on self-interest. Much like the real-life figure Yip Man, Bruce Lee's late mentor that Ip Man is based on, Yen tackles everything with stride and careful control because he knows lives are undoubtedly at stake and his community would be the first to suffer the consequences. Even when other aspects of the picture fail, Yen's portrait of a conflicted master who has worked his entire life to attain an intolerance to most forms of pain, is really the crowning jewel of the whole movie. Additionally, his supporting cast that include his gravely ill but classically beautiful wife Cheung Wing-Sang, Danny Chan as Bruce Lee's eerily convincing doppleganger and his ever-eager young son are all standouts. There are so many undercurrents of emotion here and each actor handles these roles deftly.
What really keeps this film from greatness is the inconsistent, fill-in-the-blank story structure that definitely handicaps the movie. The main arc of protecting his school is too often sidelined in favor of dedicating more time to advance the Plot B and Plot C threads. Understandably, most genre purists don't come into these kinds of movies looking for character development but it's still quite bothersome amid all the elaborate stagings consisting of cracking bones, shattered skulls and vaulting footwork. This film, more than the others in the series, aims to overcompensate for the messy structure by inserting grandiose stagings of forty men to two as they converge on rooftops, streets with fish markets and other visibly exciting locales. A few standouts include Ip Man's swift defeat of an undercover mercenary outside an elevator in an apartment hallway and, of course, his mano e mano with Tyson which is as awesome as you'd ever dream it could be. The razor sharp editing and frequent POV-switching camerawork and closeups bring the viewer right into Tyson's "glass house" of a loft whereby, in 3 minutes of delirious brutality we witness the very disparate fighting styles of two professionals doing what they do best. As Tyson's flurry of swings ripple through the glass windows as shards crash like hard rain falling on the ground below, Yen's lightning fast defensive reflexes and carefully countering footwork as he breaks in Tyson's kneecaps is quite the exciting thrill that never tires. Ending in a stalemate, Ip Man walks out demonstrating that his mind-body connection remains the peak of superhuman perfection. Scenes like this served to bookend the interwoven story elements and are, for the most part, well placed.
Alas, therein lies another issue. Unintentional comic relief. I found myself chuckling at a few choice instances during the film that could have been, in hindsight, unwarranted. Hong Kong Detective Fatso, played as a bumbling buffoon by Kent Cheng, elicited strong feelings of bizarre gag humor that seemed ill-placed in a film series that prides itself on being authentic and serious. During the firebombing of Ip Man's school, his response was curiously incompetent which left Ip Man and fellow Sifu Chui Lek to ward off a gaggle of garish thugs wielding side arms and melee weapons. To further that, the ringleader of the gang Ma King-Sang was meant to be considered a second string but no less important bad guy who always made himself the talk of the town by employing his study of Wing Chun to commit heinous acts of vandalism and extortion. Perhaps it was the actor's hammy scenery chomping that blunted his intimidating effect.
So, does "Ip Man 3" hold a candle to the other films in the series including 2013's spin-off "The Grandmaster" as well as the genre as a whole? By contrast, it is certainly the less precise of the three in the trilogy and while the epic scope of the piece is quite admirable, doesn't make a convincing case for a fourth film. Mr. Yen has gone on record as saying that if an appealing script for a follow-up were to float his way, he'd strongly consider the prospect of a reprise. However, with the latest talk on the interwebs about "Looper" Director Rian Johnson tapping him for a starring role as a Jedi in 2017's eagerly anticipated "Star Wars Episode VIII" which coincides with Yen's English-language debut, they may have to recast the character altogether. The mantra "quit while you are ahead" certainly comes to mind. If anything, this movie will make you appreciate the lasting stamp that Yip Man and Bruce Lee have had on the global appeal of martial arts and the singular power of trusting your mind as well as your body to make even the loftiest difficulties a more manageable challenge.