The sturdy but shallow martial arts melodrama “Ip Man 4: The Finale” isn’t much more than what fans have already gotten from the popular action franchise.
In their latest collaboration, series director Wilson Yip (2011’s “A Chinese Ghost Story”) and star Donnie Yen stick to their already established formula: their version of real-life Wing Chun instructor Man Ip (Yen) fights anybody who dismisses kung fu (and China, by extension). This time, Ip takes on racist American Marines and policemen in San Francisco during the mid-’60s.
“The Finale”‘s new American setting — Yip and Yen’s last two “Ip Man” movies are set in Hong Kong, while their first one takes place in Foshan, China — also coincidentally gives the director-star duo an opportunity to issue a small corrective to “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” and its provocative depiction of Bruce Lee (here played by Danny Chan), Ip’s most famous student, by presenting Lee as a controversial but selfless community leader.
Still, the movie’s called “Ip Man 4” for a reason, and by now, that name is synonymous with a certain kind of stylistically conservative beat-em-up, featuring well-choreographed but dramatically contrived fights between Ip and a bunch of anti-Chinese brutes, all of whom threaten his very general, and therefore mostly agreeable, brand of nationalistic pride.
White supremacists cause trouble for Yen’s protagonist soon after he comes to America. It’s 1964, and Ip is looking for a private school that will accept his hormonal teenage son Ming (Jim Liu) soon after Ip’s diagnosed with the lung cancer that ultimately killed him eight years later.
Yen’s quiet, but confident character finds a worthy opponent in frothing-at-the-mouth racist Marine drill sergeant Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins), but only after Ip fails to adequately humble himself before Zang Hua Wan (Yue Wu), the proud leader of the Chinese Benevolent Association and the only man who can write the recommendation that Ip needs to place his son in a good American school. Eventually, Wan and Ip team-up to fight Geddes and anyone else who tries to stop Lee and Marine Staff Sgt. Hartman (Vanness Wu) from teaching the Wing Chun style of kung fu.
As usual, Ip is presented as a coloring-book paragon of humility and grace under pressure. He’s repeatedly confronted and/or rejected by intolerant Americans, including Wan, who disapproves of Ip because he associates him with Lee, who had just published an English-language book about Wing Chun without the Benevolent Association’s approval.
Yen’s soft-spoken but stern method of diplomacy is put to work in formulaic but satisfying scenes where he protects the weak and needy — including Wan’s frustrated teenage daughter Yonah (Vanda Margraf) — and forgives their reactively cruel oppressors, like Mr. Wight (Adrian Wheeler), an affluent San Franciscan whose name is also his personality. As in the last three movies, Yen’s character builds up viewers’ taste for bloody vengeance by letting racist epithets and wooden Caucasian supporting actors walk all over Ip’s Asian co-stars.
“The Finale” is, in that sense, mostly effective at pushing buttons and getting you to root against the bad guys. Yen’s modest, assured persona has understandably gotten a lot of mileage from this type of plot, realized here by the movie’s four credited screenwriters. Still, one can’t help but feel a little beat up by the third or fourth time that Geddes screams at and physically pummels his Asian opponents. Both Adkins and Yen are very good in their respective roles, and fans of the “Ip Man” movies will get a kick out of the film’s solid fight scenes, choreographed by master action director Woo-Ping Yuen and his brother and long-time collaborator Shun-Yee Yuen.
But the film’s brand of patriotism is distractingly oversimplified since Ip and Wan are constantly fighting for Chinese pride, which feels pointedly reductive in light of the ongoing Hong Kong riots. Yip and Yen’s latest collaboration is, in that sense, more interesting for what Yip, Yen, and their collaborators avoid discussing rather than what the “Ip Man” movies have already said in their previous sequels (and also in spin-offs that they didn’t work on, like “Ip Man: The Final Fight,” a superior male weepy about old man Man Ip, starring Anthony Wong as Ip).
“Ip Man 4: The Finale” doesn’t feature any consideration of Hong Kong in the 1960s, despite Ip’s implicit association with the country where he spent most of his life. The filmmakers also just let Ip’s ultimate conclusion about America sit there: While assimilation is a noble goal, it’s not really for Ip or his family, what with all the Caucasian racists. Then again, this country’s still overrun with white racist yahoos, which makes “The Finale”‘s programmatic displays of righteous ass-whipping still basically satisfying.
Still, the best scenes in Yip and Yen’s latest are two joyfully over-the-top action scenes, the first one of which literally revolves around a dinner table flex-off between Ip and Wan. In another great set-piece, Ip viciously thrashes a group of white teenage jocks after they gang up on Yonah. There should be a lot more where these scenes came from in “The Finale,” but if there were, it might not be an “Ip Man” movie.