Review: Ip Man 3
Minor spoilers for parts 1 and 2 in this series.
I've always been a strong believer that a formulaic or even predictable framework for a story is acceptable if that frame has enough interesting things hanging off it, each polished to a mirror shine. This approach is what's given the Ip Man films a more mainstream western appeal while still being unmistakably a Hong Kong kung-fu film. The first told a compelling story with high stakes that felt both personal and selfless to the protagonist. The second was another impressive entry, but didn't hit quite as hard as the first. This downward trend unfortunately continues, making Ip Man 3 a good film, but far from a great one.
Wing Chun Grandmaster and almost-at-this-point-a-folk-hero Ip Man (Donnie Yen) must rush to action when his son's school is threatened by Frank, a greedy American developer (Mike Tyson). Frank recruits a local gang leader (Patrick Tam) to strong-arm and threaten the school into submission. Along the way, Ip Man teams up with seemingly humble rickshaw puller Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang Jin). Eventually he grows to resent Ip Man's fame, and challenges him for the title of Wing Chun Grandmaster.
If the last two sentences seemed to change gears suddenly, that's because it did. This film is riddled with too many subplots that go underexplored, keeping any interesting elements from really getting fleshed out. Even the interesting plot threads and character relationships that are explored in greater depth have no sense of connection to each other. The overall impression is like constantly switching channels between different episodes of the same show. Near the end, once it settles on what the climactic conflict will be, it tries sloppily to wrap everything up. The result is so many thematic and tonal direction changes, keeping the film from seeming to go anywhere.
The previous films had this problem, but to a lesser extent. The first one particularly, nested its conflicts so that as they shifted, it was only a matter of increasing the scope and higher stakes. One fight lead relatively intuitively to the next like a video game. The emotional weight behind them was allowed to accumulate whenever one defeated opponent led to another stronger one who was the one actually pulling the strings all along. That linearity is absent here. In each fight, Ip Man seems to be merely going through the motions rather than resolving any sort of accumulated conflicts or tension. Absent this, the hits just don't seem to matter and don't feel as hard, a fact the film all but acknowledges with overdone sound effects to compensate for weak looking hits and enough jump cuts to do a disservice to the genuine skill of the martial artists on screen.
Another problem with this film is what has previously been the series's strongest asset; Donnie Yen's portrayal of the protagonist. In the first film we're just getting to know this charmingly humble, yet undeniably dangerous man who is willing to stand up to any who would threaten his family or community even when he has to operate at a level in which he isn't effortlessly destroying everyone, proving that he doesn't just hide behind his skills, but is willing to heroically put his life on the line to defend others even when he's not sure he'll win. Here he effortlessly sails through his challengers, which leads to the cardinal sin of action movies. It gets boring. The only fight that has even a shred of dramatic tension is cut arbitrarily short and left unresolved.
There's a trope in martial arts films that outlines quantity vs. quality in matchups. IE: If we see our protagonist take on a dozen opponents at once, you can be sure these nameless mooks will get torn apart like tissue paper. If faced with only one foe, however, it can be assumed that our hero is going to be faced with a much more capable and dangerous opponent. Similarly, here there are just too many different and disparate plots and subplots for any of them to stand out. You're probably better off just re-watching the first one.