Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/16/19 03:19:16

"High-grade kung fu."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

That "Master Z" took a few months to cross the Pacific means that the distributor was able to attach a preview for "Ip Man 4" to this spinoff from the previous film in the series, and while it might just not be a great trailer, it wouldn't be surprising if fans were more enthused about seeing this track continue than the main one. Less boxed-in by history and blessed with a top-notch cast, this "Ip Man Legacy" film doesn't have quite so much weight on it and can just be good martial-arts action.

At the end of Ip Man 3, Wing Chun master Cheung Tin-Chi (Max Zhang Jin) fought the Grandmaster behind closed doors and lost decisively, and has since quit both teaching and acting as a fist for hire, instead opening a small grocery store and ensuring to be a good father. The fire never entirely left him, though, and when he comes across two women fleeing from the gang operating an opium den, he throws himself into the fight, making an enemy of Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng Ka-Wing) in the process. A dangerous one - Kit opposes the plans of sister Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh) to take the family's crime organization straight, secretly joining forces with outwardly-charming American restaurateur Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista) to introduce heroin to Bar Street. And since that's where Tin-Chi has just taken a new job waiting tables for Fu (Xing Yu), one of Miss Kwan's former men… Well, it could get all kinds of ugly.

It's a classic sort of martial-arts movie plot, simple enough not to get in the way but with enough pieces that the filmmakers can mix and match a bit in the fight scenes. It works because everything in Master Z is better than you might expect for this sort of genre spinoff. Though the Ip Man films need to have at least a toehold in the real world even when being distorted into nationalist myth-making, this one can happily embrace the sort of bright, heightened aesthetics of the comic books that the Cheung's son Fung devours, and it seems freeing for director Yuen Wo-Ping, who (along with his action team led by Yuen Shun-Yi) stages a couple examples of the fight scenes that made him internationally famous. The neon sign fight, in particular, is the sort of physics-defying but impactful wire fu where he excels, and the whole film kicks into a higher gear when the punches start flying. Or even when they're not; a highlight of the film is watching Zhang and Yeoh pass a glass of whiskey back and forth without spilling it, adding something delightfully physical and visual to a scene where they're otherwise just probing each other with words.

Everything else is a bit better, too. As much as Max Zhang wound up with this part because he could go head to head with Donnie Yen last time around, he's a good fit; his face is well suited to tragedy and regret, and the way he brings out his character's terrible temper plays right into that. He arguably had a better part than Yen in Ip Man 3, and it survives being elevated to lead status here, as he struggles with being a born fighter growing mature enough to want something else as a family man. Dave Bautista maybe doesn't impress in a conventional way, but compare him to the other English-speaking actors in this, particularly; he knows how to make a character out of the clunky English dialogue in a way the others don't. And for as great as it's been for people to recognize that Michelle Yeoh is a darn good actress in more dramatic roles over the past few years, it is awful nice to see that she can still sell the heck out of a scene where she picks up a sword and starts swinging. She has absolutely not forgotten where she came from even if she is also properly regal.

Things are done well around the fighting and cast hired in large part to sell them as well. The musical accompaniment changes with each fight, from traditional to western rock & roll to something more operatic as Tin-chi's story and environment evolves. The film's also got a genuine sense of horror where drugs are concerned where a lot of Western crime and action movies will treat them as a sort of abstract bad thing, with Chrissie Chau Sau-Na selling that especially well while Ada Liu Yan gets to play a more conventional love interest. There's a nostalgic sense to the film, as well as some of the requisite nationalism, but Yuen does a fair job of keeping it in check.

"Master Z" doesn't quite have the same grandeur of the films it follows, and at times gets a little bit lost, but also benefits from not having to put its hero on a pedestal or represent its period. It's just a darn good kung fu movie, well-done and entertaining in every aspect.

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