'Ip Man 3': Five Things to Know About the Hong Kong Martial Arts Flick

Ip Man 3 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Pegasus Motion Pictures

Ip Man 3 Still - H 2015

With Bruce Lee and Mike Tyson both making an appearance, the supposed franchise closer has potent fanboy appeal.

Ip Man 3, the final film in the hit Hong Kong martial arts franchise, opens on 300 screens across North America on Friday. 

Thanks to some brazen stunt casting, it looks like a knockout: Bruce Lee's legendary martial arts teacher, played by Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, takes on none other than Iron Mike Tyson. 

The franchise has plenty of followers stateside — even Robert Downey Jr., who's known to be a dedicated student of kung fu, has said he's a big fan.

Here are five things to know about the kung fu flick:

1. Who Was Ip Man?

A series of PG-13, action-packed biopics, the Ip Man franchise is based on the life of Yip Man, played by Yen. Yip, born in 1893 in the Chinese city of Foshan, is a major figure in martial arts history. He studied the Chinese fighting style of Wing Chun from the age of seven, eventually rising to the rank of Grandmaster.

Like all Southern Chinese of his generation, Yip's life was marked by the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, in which he fought on the side of the Kuomintang against the communists (a politically awkward fact for mainland China, which has been conveniently left out of all the recent big-screen accounts of his life).

After the civil war, he relocated to Hong Kong, where he is credited with propagating the Wing Chun form, particularly through his star pupil, one Bruce Lee (who later developed his own discipline, Jeet Kune Do).

All three of the Donnie Yen-starring Ip Man films are directed by Wilson Yip and written by Edmond Wong. Each has been a significant hit at the regional box office.

There have also been numerous unrelated Ip Man biopics produced in Hong Kong in recent years, including Herman Yau's Ip Man: Final Fight (2013) and The Grandmaster (2013), from Wong Kar Wai. Overall, the city has been averaging about one Ip Man movie per year.

2. Mike Tyson Acts, Fights ... and Speaks Cantonese

Mike Tyson has made many memorable cameos — in Webster (1987), Rocky Balboa (2006), The Hangover (2009), How I Met Your Mother (2013) and more — but Ip Man 3 is the first time he's actually playing a substantial character other than himself.

Not surprisingly, Tyson has fallen into the role of the movie's villain. He plays a ruthless American real estate developer named Frank who attempts to take away the land occupied by Ip's martial arts school. Naturally, the former Heavyweight Champion of the World and the always placid and honorable martial arts hero come to blows.

Weighing in at 165 lbs. and 5 ft 7 in., Donnie Yen is the film's hero, but in his latest professional fight, Tyson clocked in at 233 lbs. of muscle with a 71-inch reach. The fight's outcome is only slightly more plausible than Tyson's attempts to speak Cantonese in the movie — but both are irresistibly entertaining.

3. Bruce Lee Makes an Appearance

Ip Man 2 was originally intended to focus on Ip and his celebrated disciple, Bruce Lee, but the film's producers were unable to come to an agreement with Lee's estate, so the storyline was scrapped and Lee was only briefly shown as a child.

In Ip Man 3, Lee assumes a larger role in the story. He is played by Hong Kong actor and dance choreographer Danny Chan Kwok-kwan, who bears a striking resemblance to the kung fu hero.

In the film, Lee teaches Ip how to dance the cha-cha (Lee was actually a cha-cha champion before he was a martial arts star) in exchange for lessons in Wing Chun. There is also a scene in which Ip throws water at Lee, a reference to the latter's famous, and undeniably bad-ass, "Be Like Water" mantra.

4. What Else Is It About?

While the first film told the story of Ip's early days in Foshan during the Japanese invasion, and the second film featured him facing off against corrupt colonial British police in 1949 Hong Kong, the third film is set in the late 1950s, during a period in which Ip must defend his school from local thugs and a Western real estate boss.

Ip's wife also suffers a health crisis, adding a new dramatic backdrop to the usual barrage of flying fists.

5. Is This Really It for the Franchise?

Much of the media has suggested that Ip Man 3 will be the final film in the franchise, but given that the $36 million movie has already grossed an estimated $22 million — and it hasn't even opened yet in North America and mainland China (March 4), the world's no. 1 & 2 film markets — we wouldn't be surprised if Ip Man is drawn into another fight soon. Raymond Wong, the franchise's producer has said he'd like to make an Ip Man 4. Yen said he'll make a call once he's seen a script.  

Karen Chu contributed to this report from Hong Kong.