Master Z: Ip Man Legacy isn’t specifically a sequel to the well loved and lucrative, Donnie Yen starring, Chinese martial arts franchise, but rather more of a like-minded, only ever-so-slightly lesser, but equally entertaining spin-off. While Yen isn’t on hand this time to deliver impassioned speeches about tradition and integrity while kicking wholesale amount of ass in the process (although he is listed as a producer), Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is still endearing, well made popcorn movie fodder courtesy of legendary fight choreographer and director Yuen Woo-Ping (Iron Monkey, Drunken Master). While Yen’s Ip Man is due to return to cinemas later this year for the franchise’s fourth official installment, Master Z’s side quest will nicely satisfy martial arts movie buffs over in the meantime.
Set in the 1940s and not too long after the events of Ip Man 3, Master Z follows the ongoing exploits of semi-disgraced Wing Chun practitioner and former teacher, Cheung Tin-chi (Jin Zhang). After losing an ill advised challenge to the legendary Ip Man for the crown of ultimate Wing Chun master and refusing to lower himself to the depths of a hitmar or thug after taking the L, Cheung has disappeared into the streets to Hong Kong with some degree of anonymity. Providing for his young son by operating a small corner store, the now humbled Cheung refuses to display his martial arts prowess. His life of peace is shattered, however, when he stands up for a sex worker, Nana (Chrissie Chau), he witnesses being abused by her pimp, Kit (Kevin Cheng). The incident leads to Cheung and his son being targeted by the psychopathic Kit and a mysterious, snappy dressing assassin (Tony Jaa), while also drawing them unwittingly into a slowly building turf war between a mafia boss looking to make her dealings more legitimate (Michelle Yeoh) and the shady, American steakhouse proprietor (Dave Bautista) who happens to be the head of the local business association.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy might lack Yen’s larger worldwide star power, and it signals a potential new franchise direction, it’s well in line overall with previous entries in the series. It opens with a relative bang, before delivering about an hour’s worth of hit-or-miss story beats, and eventually ramps up into a hard hitting finale. The production design is top notch and works hand in hand with Woo-Ping’s elaborate fight choreography and Seppe Van Grieken and David Fu’s remarkably fluid cinematography, especially during a sequence where characters jump between neon signs that’s reminiscent of the director’s work as the stunt coordinator on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s lightly historical in its depiction of how China and Hong Kong used to be (particularly with regard to tensions between the Brits and the locals), but also draws plenty of modern day parallels, most notably to the current worldwide opioid crisis. This blending of past and present (sometimes revisionist) history with old and new school cinematic techniques has been present throughout the franchise, and while many of the players have changed, the game remains largely the same. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy might be a spin-off surrounding a previous supporting character, but it also very much realizes that things that worked before will likely work again if you don’t tinker with the formula.
Zhang proves to be a likable, charismatic, physically capable leading man here, and fans of the previous entry should enjoy watching the character’s trajectory progress (although watching any of the previous installments isn’t much of a prerequisite). The peppering of the film with notable faces like Yeoh (who looks like she’s having a blast), Jaa (who’s imposing, but somewhat under utilized), and Bautista (who’s delivering a purposefully wooden and stilted performance that’s particularly astute and well in line with other American villains in classic martial arts flicks of the past) certainly adds quite a bit. Zhang has wonderful chemistry with all of them, whether fists and weapons are flying around or not. He also has some wonderful moments opposite Cheng’s murderous baddie, and Xing Yu and Yan Lu as a grateful brother and sister pair who take Cheung in during a time of need. The performances given by all involved make the film’s story heavy and action light middle section a lot easier to handle.
The script from Edmond Wong and Chan Tai-lee sometimes clunks along under the weight of too many characters, obvious swerves, and sometimes misplaced bits of social commentary, but those elements will be the ones viewers will remember the least about Master Z: Ip Man Legacy. While there are plenty of artful touches through Woo-Ping’s latest, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy isn’t the type of film people go to see primarily based on its storytelling merits. Like most great martial arts epics, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy isn’t much more than an elaborately staged excuse to watch some some good guys beat up some bad guys. If that’s what you’re in the mood for, that’s what you’re going to get. When I saw the film, that’s all I was hoping for and it was exactly what I got. My expectations might not have been exceeded in any way, but they were solidly met. I’d happily revisit another one of these tangential adventures in the future.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, April 12, 2019.
Check out the trailer for Master Z: Ip Man Legacy:
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