Director Yuen Woo-ping takes the mantle for actor and martial artist Max Zhang’s latest solo feat, Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, a fresh and livening underdog tale spun-off from the current Ip Man trilogy long prior to the fourth film’s release this summer.
Zhang has made some great strides in the last few years, including at least a few Hollywood credits to his belt – this, after proving formidably as a major seller to fans of the genre long since stunt-doubling Zhang Ziyi on the set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Fans of the Ip Man franchise won’t feel too left out as Yuen’s spin-off assures with the occssional flashback here and there to cosign the new venture that otherwise expands the commercial Ip Man cinematic universe.
Hong Kong is where our story is set, still under British rule, and a system of government that’s become inherently corrupt. Following the fallout of his defeat at the hands of Ip Man in Ip Man 3, former Wing Chun prospect Cheung Tin-Chi lives with his son, Fung, and runs a small grocery business. One day, a chance run-in with Julia, a lounge singer whisking her sister-in-law, Nana, away from an opium den, puts the martial arts retiree in the throes of the den’s owner, Kit, a vicious gangster for whom he’s forced to remerge his particular skillset. Little does he know of the bureaucracy he’ll be faced with the long haul, on top of retaliation from Kit and his men.
A sprawling battle ensues high atop the signs of a narrow Hong Kong street before Tin-Chi and Fung narrowly escape with their lives. Julia, making her entry in a nick of time, reconvenes with the father/son duo amid the fracas and takes them in with the approval of her business-minded brother, Fu, who runs a bustling lounge. Going forward, trying to attune himself to servitude as a waiter bodes a bit more difficult than preferred for Tin-Chi who is much more inured to his pride than the boisterous foreigners patronizing the club. As for Kit, his actions have begun drawing the attention of his sister, Miss Kwan, the head of the Cheung Lok crime organization for which she’s since taken a vow to legitimize her brand.
An overzealous Kit, however, has other plans in store as he looks to expand his market base from opium to heroin with the help from fellow cohort, Ma. With this, it’s not long before the drugs find their way to Fu’s street, and as with what always happens when drugs are involved, it’s not long before Tin-Chi steps in to consult with Miss Kwan. Brutal consequences arise as Miss Kwan, hampered by her negative reputation, is forced to mitigate with the backlash stemming from the drugs circulating on the street. The fight doesn’t end there as Tin-Chi, rest assured, will still be left facing not only corrupt police officials, but an even more nefarious enemy hiding in plain sight.
With Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, it’s impressive that the producers still found ample source material to work with in building off the success of the now four-part Donnie Yen-led Ip Man canon. I might even guarantee that not a lot of us westerners who follow the genre even knew that the creation of the character, Cheung Tin-Chi, was inspired by a real-life person. I certainly didn’t.
Therein lies such a contributing factor to the fascination of such fervor that makes a franchise like this one so bankable. A spin-off with Max Zhang, an actor who has risen to prominence with films like The Grandmaster, Rise Of A Legend and S.P.L.: A Time For Consequences, and other films that remain on ice at the moment before release here and in Asia, is an opportune and welcome move for someone in the actor’s position.
Zhang continues to lend an impressionable portrayal of stoic would-be everyman, Cheung, who, for all intents and puposes is a martial arts master, and whose son literally sees him as everyone’s hero. Actress Liu Yan plays the self-sufficient Julia, a stunning beauty and songstress who more than proves she’s no damsel in distress, as would be expected of her on-screen brother, Fu, played by the phenomenal Xing Yu (Flashpoint, Fatal Contact, Super Bodyguard)
Michelle Yeoh makes a fine entry as Miss Kwan, a character suitably written bilingual for the film’s diverse cast mapping. A little stiffly-executed at times, Dave Bautista’s portrayal of mild-mannered, steak-loving Owen Davidson lends to the narrative a man of strong influence, whose friendly-faced demeanor leaves more to be desired by the third act.
Kevin Cheng chews it up as ferocious gangster, Kit, while actor Patrick Tam resurges back into the Ip Man fray seperately from the third film, this time playing the role of Ma. One other delightful reunion for the fans will see Zhang rematching a few times once more with fellow S.P.L. sequel lead, international action star Tony Jaa who plays a hitman working under Tin-Chi’s former underworld employer, cameoed no less by legendary thesp, Yuen Wah.
Yuen Shun-Yi’s action direction goes for the big and bold with its set pieces. The action is full-up with exciting choreography, though the presentation is far from the signature feat Zhang garnered in Yip’s Ip Man 3.
Fan service is the driving force for the action due in part to the contending performances of our cast, namely Michelle Yeoh who continues to be a sight to see holding a sword. Wirework is painfully present throughout the film’s action; Safety benefits notwithstanding, it’s really up to the viewer at this stage of the game to accept it seeing as not every martial arts actor can defy as much gravity as “Yuri Boyka“.
Yuen Woo-ping crafts a discernible effort with leading man Max Zhang at the center of a hearty father/son tale. It tackles a lot in trying to disseminate an intricate and detailed story, and it becomes a little rough around the edges by the third act. Really though, the film’s saving grace is that it’s able to carry on its revenance from the Ip Man franchise through Zhang’s key performance, making this filmic incarnation of Cheung Tin-Chi a cinematic kung fu hero inherently worth cheering for.
Tin-Chi is reminded of the tragedy of never becoming the successfully viable Wing Chun master he wanted to be by besting Ip Man, and so he lives with that loss everyday while raising his son. Leaving the martial world should have sealed the deal for him, and it’s arisen a series of new problems and enemies for him instead.
In turn though, it also forced him to confront his own hinderances and self-doubt. We see this in portions during the action where from the start, he’s abstained from Wing Chun to something more practical style of fighting. Moreover, that the constant air of wrongdoing and malfeasance that plagues the city compels him to be an instrument of justice speaks highly to the father/son end of the spectrum, in addition to his essential kung fu awakening.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy doesn’t hold much of a candle the Ip Man films, and to that affect, its honorable that doesn’t try to. There are probably some artistic elements that would’ve strengthened the film some, although frankly if you’re a fan of the franchise and you’re not too picky about the frills, you won’t really walk away feeling disappointed.
At the crux of it, you get a kung fu story that settles for an often wildly entertaining, thrilling and fun spin-off adventure – and one inarguably worth following up on. The end credits sequence with Max Zhang and on-screen son, Henry, is a thing of pure beauty.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy opens in select theaters and on-demand this Friday from Well Go USA.