Mike Tyson drops in as a baddie in Donnie Yen's third portrait of the legendary martial-arts grandmaster who counted Bruce Lee among his disciples.
More than five years after their last collaboration, Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen and director Wilson Yip reunite with Ip Man 3, the third and possibly last entry of their film series revolving around the revered founder of the Wing Chun martial-arts school. Bolstered by Yuen Woo-ping's exhilarating action choreography and some stunt casting in the shape of Mike Tyson and Zhang Jin (the breakout star in Wong Kar-wai's rival Ip Man biopic The Grandmaster), Yen and Yip have managed to wring a serviceable film out of a pedestrian plot riddled with erroneous period details. Bound for commercial success at home and enthusiasm from kung-fu buffs abroad — the film's rollout outside Asia, in the U.S. and Australia, begins late next month — Ip Man 3 could possibly score a couple of noms at the annual film awards in Hong Kong.
The pic is set in 1959, when the titular grandmaster is seen settling into his low-profile life in Hong Kong after his decades of struggle against feuding rivals and then Japanese oppressors during World War II — all of which was shown in the previous two installments. The film picks up the narrative from Ip Man 2 with a face-off between Ip (Yen) and a grown-up Bruce Lee (Danny Chan). Defying the gritty, hard-knuckle action sequences which have defined the franchise, the showdown unfolds in the kind of Matrix-like slow motion that has propelled Yuen to international mainstream prominence.
Eye-popping as this opening scene might be, the fight is a red herring: Neither VFX nor Lee (who, in real life, had already left for the U.S. by 1959) has a prominent presence in Ip Man 3. Even more than in Sammo Hung's action choreography in the previous two films, the physical combats here — Ip taking on dozens of opponents in an incredibly high-octane sequence in a shipyard, or just a single adversary in a single room — take place mostly with feet on the ground and fists cracking bones. This earthly approach echoes Ip's quotidian life: Again, Yen delivers a suitably understated turn as the mild-mannered master, mingling with the masses and seeking nothing more than an ordinary life with his martial-arts school and his family.
Ip maintains this unassuming demeanor even when trouble brews, when he is forced to confront local thugs trying to coerce the local elementary's headmaster to sell the land on which his school was built. Amid a cast of cartoonish allies (Leung Ka-yan's over-the-top old-school master) and caricatured villains (Patrick Tam's glowering goon), Ip is a near-saintly presence. He walks away from taunts and is more than willing to kneel and kowtow to his sneering foes so as to keep his family and friends safe from harm. While this humility is sometimes stretched to unconvincing limits, Yen pulls it off with yet another performance anchored by grace, poise and well-placed humor.
Having helped Yen re-establish his acting credentials over the years, Yip's nifty direction and canny merging of talking and fighting scenes lift the film above its mediocre and under-researched screenplay, written by a team of three led by co-producer Edmond Wong. While Yen's off-screen bonding with Yip provides some dramatic tension, his chemistry with Lynn Hung, who plays Ip's wife, Cheung Wing-shing, remains as strong as ever. The model-turned-actress's controlled performance matches Yen's step by subtle step, consolidating their status as one of the most discreetly persuasive screen pairings in recent years.
Then again, all eyes are probably on the face-off between Yen and Mike Tyson, who plays a pugilistic American businessman who somehow colludes with the British colonial police in a land-grabbing scheme. While offering an intriguing clash of wildly different fighting styles, this is nothing more than a thinly-veiled nod to the officially endorsed discourse about foreign collusion in undermining the stability of Hong Kong.
Something more substantial eventually arrives in a final confrontation between Ip and someone who could be seen as Ip's shadow. With the grandmaster remaining a goody-two-shoes throughout — the Chinese equivalent, perhaps, of an old-school superhero who would never, ever slip over to the dark side — it's up to another character to embody the darker instincts a fighter could harbor. In a role somehow similar in tone to the prestige-hungry fighter Ma San he played in The Grandmaster, Zhang Jin plays Cheung Tin-chi, an exiled martial-arts expert on a dogged quest to replace Ip as the sole torch-bearer of the traditional Wing Chun martial-arts faction.
Radiating haughtiness, Zhang (who plays an equally aloof antagonist in SPL 2: A Time of Consequences) provides a remarkable contrast to Yen's Ip, as well as a great opponent forcing the veteran action star to raise his game. Then, of course, this final thread about power-grabbers conniving to lay claims to the authentic Wing Chun mantle could be seen as screenwriter Wong's sniping at other Ip Man films (The Grandmaster, The Legend is Born — Ip Man, Ip Man — The Final Fight) that emerged while his own franchise took a hiatus.