Ip Man 3: A Grand Send-Off for the Grandmaster

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Donnie Yen is back for another round in Ip Man 3 as the titular Wing Chun master. After fighting the Imperial Japanese Army and the British in Hong Kong, the third sees Ip Man facing not only Mike Tyson, but a rival Wing Chun master, a Muay Thai fighter, and scores of countless street thugs in order to prove himself as the ‘true’ master of Wing Chun.

There has been a proliferation of Ip Man-based movies in the last few years, and while some may prefer historical accuracy (or mood, or storytelling), others would rather see Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung fight on a small table with such ferocity that the table literally breaks in half, forcing them to acrobatically fly thru the air before each man lands on their respective table halves, ending in a tie (which happens in Ip Man 2).

The teaser for Ip Man 3 promised a young Bruce Lee and a meeting with Mike Tyson, but both Mike Tyson’s and Bruce Lee’s appearances are closer to cameos or stuntcasting in reality. Bruce Lee’s best scene happens in the opening minutes of the movie, where he helps Ip Man to literally kick his smoking habit. It was a shrewd move by the PR department, but it wasn’t that disappointing, as Tyson suitably stole every scene he was in.

The story can be broken up into three distinct parts. The first focuses on Ip Man protecting his son’s school from the thugs of a greedy property developer (played by Mike Tyson), while the second revolves around Ip Man having to prove his Wing Chun against a rival named Cheung Tin-Chi, and the third sees him caring for his ailing wife. That may sound like there’s a lot going on, but the plot is merely a vehicle to transport us between fight scenes.

The movie feels slower compared to the first two, and sometimes, in order to build drama, it resorts to clichéd emotional appeals, such as Ip Man having to fight and protect the school because of “Think of the children!”, as well as having a terminally ill wife. But it’s not all melodrama and romance. The closest that the movie gets to a love scene is when his wife, getting sicker by the day, remarks that Ip Man has been spending so much time caring for her that he barely practices anymore, and asks to watch him work the wooden dummy. This was actually quite well done, although I couldn’t help wondering whether over the span of the series, if he spent more time with the wooden dummy than with her.

But the fight scenes have always been the best part of the series, and the third is no different. The Tyson fight, for lack of a better word, was awesome, and although it brought back flashbacks of the climactic fight from the second film, it was a kick hearing Tyson speak Cantonese. Tyson kills it off of sheer charisma alone, from the scowling staredown to questionable face tat to iconic lisp… it’s all muy Tyson. Thank god his Muay Thai henchman fails to foil Ip Man, forcing him to get his hands dirty, for cinema’s sake.

Other notable set pieces were the siege over the school, an epic battle at the Western Union shipyards, and the rival Wing Chun master Cheung Tin-Chi proving his kung fu skills in a montage that condenses the first half of the second movie into a minute. The final fight between masters Ip Man and Cheung Tin-Chi was also impressive, going from pole, to knives, to fists. The knife sequence in particular stands out- as their blades clashed, the steel screamed at nails-on-chalkboard frequencies, even forcing some in the audience to cover their ears.
All in all, Ip Man 3 holds its own against the other Ip Man-based movies, such as Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, but is probably the worst of the series, relatively speaking. That’s because the fights lacked a sense of tension and suspense (as beautifully choreographed as they were) because the stakes just weren’t high enough. It’s different when say, in the second movie, he’s fighting for the pride of Chinese martial arts against the invading ‘white devils’ in Hong Kong, versus in this movie when he’s fighting to protect a children’s school. Regardless, Donnie Yen has made Ip Man one of his defining roles, and if this is his last kung fu movie (as he hinted in press junkets), it is still a grand send off for his portrayal of the grandmaster of Wing Chun.