August 2, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Ip Man’ review: Martial arts icon reduced to superhero

If the comparisons by which “Ip Man: Kung Fu Master” suffers seem unfair, it’s its own fault: Come at the grandmaster, you’d better not miss.

It’s the third film to star Dennis To as the legendary Wing Chun practitioner whose teachings influenced many generations of martial artists; he even trained a young upstart named Bruce Lee. It’s not related to the famed “Ip Man” film franchise starring the great Donnie Yen or the gorgeous Wong Kar-wai biopic “The Grandmaster,” starring the great Tony Leung. Boy is it not.

“Kung Fu Master” doesn’t aim for the gravitas or beauty (or credulity) of those films at their best. The first two Yen movies are modern classics of the genre, anchored by Yen’s iconic performance and Sammo Hung‘s superb fight choreography. The Wong Kar-wai is an artistic achievement, one of the best-realized films of its kind.

And then there’s “Ip Man: Kung Fu Master.”

It is well shot.

Atmospherically, it owes debts to “Batman Begins” (though with the occasional broad comic stroke — that’s what Nolan was missing in “Interstellar”!). But right away, apart from the factual basis of Ip serving as a policeman in Foshan, the story goes way off the rails and stops resembling anything like an account of a real person’s life.

The grandmaster is a national hero in China, so to depict him fighting — unarmed — about 100 ax-wielding attackers simultaneously and coming out unscathed is akin to portraying young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and using it to swat a battalion of redcoats into the Potomac. To be fair, there would be an audience for that. But where in “Grandmaster” the superhuman feats were related with cinematic poetry, this one’s ambitions are expressed in the funny-pages vernacular of a superhero one-knee landing (which does occur in the film).

There’s a crime-drama plot in “Kung Fu Master” in which a murdering gangster turns out to be the good kind of murdering gangster because he’s anti-Japanese (par for the course, the movie is virulently nationalistic, specifically anti-Japanese). He surrenders to Officer Ip and the evil, evil Japanese murder him in jail. When Ip realizes the police force is infested with Japanese rot (I did warn you: specifically anti-Japanese), he quits and dons a black half-mask to dispense justice (I did warn you: “Batman Begins”).

A lot of other stuff happens but the main gag is that some of Ip’s allies may be traitors and a Japanese major shows up and announces, “Hello, my Chinese friends … I’ve heard Foshan is a martial arts town ….” And there will be climactic combat in the ring.

Expect lots of long fights with wire work that might make sense in the reduced gravity of Mars. It’s a martial-arts actioner with lots of punching and kicking.

So if it’s an Ip Man adventure you’re looking for in which he’s a full-on superhero, this one exists. Just know you’re getting the B Team. If you’re looking for a rousing flick with the A Team and haven’t seen the first two Yen movies, they’re on Netflix now (along with others in that series, and the beautiful “Grandmaster” — though it’s the shortest of the three cuts of that one). If you haven’t seen Yen before, you’ll find yourself wondering why the hell he wasn’t more prominent in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

‘Ip Man: Kung Fu Master’

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: Available Dec. 11 on digital and VOD