I want you to ignore the modestly impressive 3/5 rating attached to this review. Ip Man 3i is a fascinating film even in its mistakes, and a great film in its triumphs: anyone with the most glancing interest in action movies, especially martial arts movies, has really no choice but to see it. This is all despite the important fact that the film is a little bit broken, and by "a little bit", I mean "fundamentally, kind of. No, definitely". It is a mixed-up jumble of plots that accompany each other less from some kind of narrative urgency than because there was enough room in the film's 105-minute running time to accommodate them all, and those plots run the gamut from the utterly clichéd to the also clichéd but presented in such a an opaque way that if it wasn't for the clichés you'd never have a prayer of figuring out what was going on.

The film, which premiered in Hong Kong in December 2015, is the slightly lagging sequel to 2008's excellent martial arts picture/morality play Ip Man and 2010's gonzo jingoistic Ip Man 2, and between them they provide a close enough approximation of the life of Ip Man, the midcentury martial arts teacher chiefly responsible for the worldwide popularity of the Wing Chun style (that is to say, one of his students was Bruce Lee, and he's chiefly responsible for Wing Chun's visibility. But Ip was a fascinating human being and deserves more than to be footnoted as an addendum to Lee's biography). A more abstract version of his life was presented in Wong Kar-Wai's 2013 The Grandmaster, which I suspect is the more well-known movie, at least among the cinephile set and, I mean, it is better. But that's no poor reflection on the Ip Man trilogy: the first film, at least, is genuinely great, and both of the sequels have a lot that's entirely worth the sifting it takes to get to them.

Anyway, we're here to talk about Ip Man 3, which picks up in 1959, at which point Ip (Donnie Yen) has settled into a quiet life with a school in Hong Kong, where he lives with his wife Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung) and second son Ching (Wang Yan Shi), while his legend gently fades. His son has a rival at school, and that rival has a father named Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang Jin), who is a pretty solid Wang Chun fighter in his own right, and who instantly cops a rather haughty attitude around Ip. This is the point at which I can no longer properly summarise the plot of the movie, not because it becomes mired in spoilers, but because it gets inordinately thick and dense. The ingredients that follow include a Triad attempt to force the school out of business, which is cotangent with but not identical to a plot to kidnap the schoolchildren and sell them into slavery. There is involved with this a corrupt American land developer, Frank (Mike Tyson). There is also Cheung's jealousy towards Ip, which ends up providing the last act after writers Chan Tai-Li, Jill Leung, and Edmond Wong accidentally wrap up the other conflicts too early, and threading throughout all of this is Wing-sing's discovery that she is dying of cancer, and her husband's desire to be by her side despite all of the other things pressing upon his attention. And just in case that's not enough moving parts, the film includes a thoroughly spurious scene early on in which Ip is visited by the eager, arrogant young Lee Jun-fan (Chan Kwok-Kwan), AKA Bruce Lee, a scene that demonstrates mostly that the casting director had a phenomenal eye for picking a Lee doppelgänger, and to remind us that still and all, Bruce Lee is much more famous than Ip Man.

It's messy as all hell, and not the most intuitive thing to follow "confusing" is a strong word, but the way that subplots are mashed together doesn't follow any reasonable kind of interior logic nor the generic conventions of martial arts movies. Which are not, let us be honest, overwhelmingly elegant, clear pieces of clockwork narrative functioning. Still, Ip Man 3 could only be helped if you keep a chart of names and relationships handy. The question that arises is, of course, Does any of this matter? Frankly, it does not. The storytelling in the film is uninspired, and the character drama trite - Hung gives a superlative performance, filled with silences and powerful reaction shots and brief, sharp explosions of pain and love, and she still can't make anything of her lengthy plotline more consequential than "and then his wife died, and it was sad". But it has the goods where it needs to. Obviously, this means the action is terrific, pretty much across the board: after Sammo Hung filled the role of action director in the last two movies, the new one replaces him with Yuen Woo-Ping - and let's not pretend for a second that Hung isn't a fantastic action choreographer. But there's something that's simply more florid and extravagant in Yuen's work, which is in this case augmented heavily by Yen's own contributions, much of it through on-set improvisation. And may I pause for a second to note that it is fucking nuts to think of such precise, inventive fight scenes coming about through improvisation, and let's all tip our hat to Donnie Yen's willingness to go for broke at the sprightly age of 51.

Regardless of who did what and when, the fights in Ip Man 3 are utterly wonderful, captured with glorious clarity and restraint by director Wilson Yip, returning to the franchise for the third time and perhaps doing the best work he has so far in framing and staging the fights: there's something almost reminiscent of a Hollywood musical from the '50s in the way the film uses obviously transparent sets and relaxed but precise camera angles and cutting to really showcase the sheer perfection of the human movement on display. The most technically impressive is probably the climax, between Yen and Zhang, although the most interesting is surely the fight between Yen and Tyson, a surprising and delightful assemblage of Chinese and Western fighting styles that makes wonderful use of different camera lengths to accentuate different aspects of how each fighter moves their body and makes contact. It also showcases Tyson having a giddy ol' time - it would be at least an exaggeration to say that he's giving a particularly "good" performance, but my God, is he ever a joy to watch: he was clearly having a blast making the movie and it radiates right off the screen.

The fighting, anyway, is one very important reason to watch the film. The other is Yen, who has always been good in the role, but has aged into it over the course of three films, and who's really quite special this time around. There's a soothing calmness to his performance, punctuated by violence, and flashes of desperation in the more family-oriented plotlines; as trite as it is to say, his screen presence is full of the wisdom of a grandmaster, patient and fluid and then very suddenly powerful for moments at a time. It's not quite fair to call this a great character drama - "save the school from the land developer!" doesn't give him very much to do - but Yen's Ip Man is the kind of figure who ought to have a great character drama around him, and it's enough to give Ip Man 3 at least the temporary aura of being a much more profound movie than it is.