Ip Man, a.k.a. Yip Kai-man, spent much of the 20th century promoting the Chinese art of Wing Chun, his mastery so impressive and influential that it’s now spawned a trio of films, each of them focused on the proud heights of his career as an instructor, mentor, and occasional provider of ambivalently-delivered beatdowns. Yet despite the continuing explication, Ip seems less real than ever in Ip Man 3, the (hopefully?) final installment in this series, which continues to balance the innate thrills of martial arts majesty with the tedium of glowing hagiographic agitprop. Set some twenty years after the first film, it advances the overall plot while returning Ip to the same general situation as his previous adventures, still patient, benevolent and sporting a changelessly beatific expression (courtesy of the adroit but noticeably constrained Donnie Yen), still ultimately negligent of his wife and young son, the latter remaining roughly the same age throughout all three stories.

About halfway through the movie, just as it seems that our hero is doomed to be stuck in this recurring scenario forever, his wife receives a dire cancer diagnosis, pushing the family drama angle to the forefront. Preceding this revelation is more hand-wringing over the tension between individual reputation and personal responsibility, the allure of retreating to peaceful study and familial duty countered by the desire to train new students and get drawn into inevitable street fights with upstart competitors. An unsatisfying balance between the two sides is again reached, and the cancer angle, the film’s one potential interesting development, proves to be a fake-out as well. Befitting Ip’s status as a symbolic figure for the workaholic men of China’s burgeoning middle class, his wife gets no real attention and eventually recedes into the background again, offering her blessing for her husband to pursue the greatness inherent to a man of his stature.

This prominence is expressed in the midst of a routine story involving unscrupulous land developers, corrupt local officials and rival martial arts clubs. Where the first and second films managed to make intermittent stabs at historical context, with emblematic fights against figures representing the rest of China, Japan and the occupying British, this one drops the pretense of symbolic adversaries in exchange for an ongoing struggle against a mirrored figure, who seems more devoted to his family but less in control of his emotions. The equation of with weakness is one of the many hints of the regressive politics on display (the habitually bruising treatment of Ip’s wife being another). The biggest problem with Ip Man 3, however, remains its persistent recycling of themes, scenarios and foes, even swapping out Darren Shahlavi’s racist Brit boxer from the second movie for the more-famous, more-menacing Mike Tyson, who, in line with the film’s subdued political interest, declines to spew any racial hatred.

With his sprawling face tattoo, monstrous build and modern-cut dress shirts, Tyson’s existence as a factory owner in 1959 Hong Kong does not make one iota of sense, which would be fine were Ip Man 3 not so insistent on maintaining a straight-faced tone. This tonal incoherence reflects a continuing problem with these films, which seek to deliver full-throttle action and nationalistic gravity in equal measure, inflating Ip into a fantastical superhero while making pathetic entreaties toward establishing his humanity. Weighed down by the demands of achieving these disparate goals, they stand as the opposite of the lively, ferocious films made by Ip’s protégé Bruce Lee’s, showcasing the art’s beauty in the most sterile manner imaginable.

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