The year is 1964, the event a karate tournament in San Francisco, and all eyes are on Bruce Lee as he gives a demonstration of Chinese martial arts. All eyes except those of Bruce Lee himself.
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The future international sensation is instead looking reverentially toward a slight figure in the stands, a quiet man in a traditional long black Chinese robe, someone sure of himself but composed. Could it be? Yes, it is. Ip Man is in the house.
A master of the Wing Chun school of fighting, the actual Ip Man was a revered figure who served as Bruce Lee’s teacher when the actor was growing up in Hong Kong. But for the last decade this real individual, who died in 1972, has been the subject of a series of action movies starring Donnie Yen that intertwine the story of his life with fictional adventures.
Now comes “Ip Man 4: The Finale,” which moves the story largely to San Francisco and benefits from the sure hand of Yuen Woo-Ping, first among equals among action choreographers, whose work includes “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the “Matrix” films as well as dozens of Hong Kong efforts.
Directed, as were the previous three films, by Wilson Yip Wai Shun, and written by Edmond Wong, who’s also had a hand in all of them, the Ip Man movies are basically genre exercises, the martial arts equivalent of B westerns, albeit with bigger budgets. In this particular film, the bad guys, instead of wearing black hats, are all white Americans, not just random citizens but xenophobic racists of the most unapologetic sort. “Go back to Asia” is pretty much the mildest thing they say.
After that opening moment at the San Francisco karate tournament, the film flashes back to Hong Kong a month earlier, where Ip has to deal with some difficult situations. First, he is diagnosed with cancer, and second, as a recent widower, he is having trouble with an unruly teenage son who is always getting into fights.
Feeling that being sent to a school in San Francisco might straighten his son out, Ip decides to visit, but aside from meeting up with former student Lee (Kwok-Kwan Chan), America is a sour experience.
Even Ip’s fellow countrymen are not a welcoming bunch. Taking a meeting with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn., led by Wan Zong Hua (Wu Yue), Ip is confronted by a group of fellow martial arts masters who are angry because Bruce Lee is breaking with tradition by taking American students.
This leads to one of “Ip Man 4’s” signature scenes, a face-off involving a single cup of tea, a revolving circular glass table and two very powerful wills.
Visiting a trendy private school, Ip is shocked to find Wan’s teenage daughter Yonah (Vanda Margraf), having to fight off some thuggish fellow students. Yonah lives for cheerleading (much to her father’s disapproval) and her skill has sparked some prejudiced resentment.
Though other martial artists have their moments, especially Bruce Lee, this, as the title indicates, is very much Ip’s show, and he ends up battling not one but two beefy and muscle-bound Americans who share a contempt for all things Chinese.
Fought first is Colin Frater (Chris Collins) a karate instructor for the U.S. Marine Corps who believes “Chinese kung fu is only good for folding laundry.” He will learn otherwise.
Egged on by Gunnery Sgt. Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins), who encourages Frater to “shut these kung fu charlatans up for good,” Frater and then Geddes himself take on the deceptively mild-mannered Ip.
One of the unexpected pleasures of “Ip Man 4” is a warm montage of highlights from the previous three films that plays at the close. Star Yen has said there are no more Ip films in his future, but no one would be upset if another one happened to come along.