Ip Man is like James Bond. Viewers could debate for hours which actor best brought them to life. Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster represents the character’s artistic high-water mark, sort of making it the Ip Man Skyfall, aptly featuring “Little” Tony Leung’s romantic brooding in the Daniel Craig tradition. Anthony Wong was the oldest Master IP, so he must be Roger Moore. Yet, for real fans, nobody fit more comfortably in the role than Donnie Yen, the Connery-like original article. Reportedly, Yen was done with the franchise after his second outing, but never say never. In one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year (even though its only January) Yen once again serves as the Wing Chun standard-bearer in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Much like the old days in Fushan, Master Ip is the universally respected dean of Hong Kong martial arts instructors. He is a bit older now, but his skills remain undiminished. Yet, his traditional garb and self-effacing modesty are at odds with the increasingly jaded tenor of the times. Gangsters even want to grab the land currently occupied by the school Master Ip’s youngest son attends.
Of course, Ip Man is not going to idly watch as the principle and teachers are bullied by thugs. Initially, Master Ip forges an alliance with Cheung Tin-chi, who is also a highly skilled Wing Chun practitioner. However, the covetous Cheung will become a rival for the title of “Grandmaster.” It is all very inconvenient for Master Ip, especially when his beloved wife Cheung Wing-sing’s health starts to fail.
Donnie Yen is one of the most charismatic movie stars in the world today, but from time to time, he will bail on everything but the action scenes when a film doesn’t come together as he might have hoped. However, Ip Man has always brought out the very best in him and the third time is no exception. In fact, it really is something of a charm.
In some ways, Ip Man 3 is closer to the gritty street level action of the early HK films starring the Master’s most famous disciple, Bruce Lee. Over the course of the film, Master Ip will face off against hundreds of tire iron and lug-wrench wielding ruffians. As fans would hope and expect, Yun Woo-ping’s action choreography is wildly cinematic. Donnie Yen is also still the man when it comes to martial arts beatdowns. Yet, rather strangely, the big showdown everyone is looking forward to comes relatively early, around the end of the second act.
Ultimately, it does not matter, because Yen and Lynn Xiong (Hung) are so darned good together as Master and the ever patient Cheung. Xiong easily gets her most dramatic scenes of the Yip-directed trilogy and she makes the most of it with her scrupulously restrained but achingly dignified performance. Iron Mike Tyson also shows some respectable villain chops as Frank, a mobbed-up land developer with a ridiculous facial tattoo. Right, as if anyone could walk around with something like that on their mug.
Like all franchises that really click, we feel like we have been through a lot with Yen’s Master Ip and his family. As a result, Ip Man 3 might just choke fans up, but in a deeply satisfying way. The action duly delivers, but is its grace that really surprises. Very highly recommended, Ip Man 3 opens this Friday (1/21) in New York, at the IFC Center.