The Ip Man trilogy — soon to become a quadrilogy (not a word) — is already one of the best action franchises going, and while star Donnie Yen and director Wilson Yip are the driving force behind them the films’ themes of honor and pride are equally important. The best case for a spin-off following a side character would be to feature different lead talent while still pairing similar themes with equally exhilarating action. Happily, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is that best case.
Cheung Tin-chi (Jin Zhang) was an overly proud Wing Chun practitioner and teacher who met his match at the hands of Ip Man at the end of Ip Man 3 (2015). Defeated physically and mentally, Cheung leaves town and the art behind and sets up a new life as a grocer alongside his young son Fung. He keeps a low profile and no longer fights, but when he intervenes to help two women being beaten by gang members he unwittingly makes enemies of an ambitious thug (Kevin Cheng), a reluctant mob boss (Michelle Yeoh), and a drug-dealing restaurateur (Dave Bautista). He also makes new friends, though, and while excessive pride resulted in his previous downfall a resurgence of honor might just lift him towards victory.
The legendary Yuen Woo-ping is seventy-four but directs the action with the enthusiasm and energy of someone several decades his junior. The film’s less kinetic moments are powered by charismatic performances and a competent genre script, but it’s Yuen’s action set-pieces that absolutely thrill. His long career is filled with stints as fight choreographer and action director on modern classics like Man of Tai Chi (2013), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), and Fist of Legend (1994), as well as directorial efforts including Fearless (2006) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). Master Z: Ip Man Legacy sees him deliver one of his most consistently entertaining efforts in years with stellar fight scenes including a sequence atop one street’s numerous neon signage and awnings.
Zhang does great work with a lead character whose first introduction to viewers (via Ip Man 3) was as an antagonist going up against Yen’s honorable and heroic master. While not quite a villain, he was still an opponent who fell from grace making his rise here an arc that most “bad guys” never see, and Zhang sells the heart and integrity as well as he does the martial arts basassery (also not a word). Yuen has always been partial to wire-work in his films — even grounded ones like this are given a lift through some fanciful footwork — but the fights are still mostly built on fast-moving fists, elbows, and feet as combatants are flipped into walls, tossed through windows, and generally knocked into next week.
The supporting cast is equally compelling including Yan Liu and Xing Yu as siblings who help Cheung out in his time of need with the latter in particular displaying some fun fighting skills of his won. Yeoh’s turn as head of the gang allows her to dabble in the action including a fight and an artful display of graceful symmetry involving a whiskey glass, and she creates a layered character whose desire to go straight is at odds with her love for her aggressively criminal brother. Bautista’s villainous gweilo, meanwhile, sees him deliver with a steak-loving bastard in a suit, and while he lacks the speed of Cheung and the others his brute force and imposing presence are put to terrific use. He’s headlining his own action movies these days (Final Score, 2018), but he’s so slyly charismatic as a villain that I’m hoping he never tires of playing bad guys too. Tony Jaa also appears, but while we get one fight between his shadowy character and Cheung he feels more like a tease for a possible sequel (which I hope is heading our way soon).
The film doesn’t stray far from some of the anti-colonialism themes present in Yen’s Ip Man films either as Bautista’s foreigner conspires with the British police commander to keep the locals in their place. “Chinese don’t have options,” he says at one point, and as the finale shifts into a slow-motion beat down of Chinese citizens at the hands and batons of white police officers it’s the expected indictment of foreign rule that so many action-oriented period films employ. Pair that with the required use of apparent non-actors (Bautista excluded) in the white roles and you have a Hong Kong action flick that ticks additionally expected boxes from the Ip Man franchise.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is a rarity as a spin-off from a successful (and still active) action franchise, but it succeeds beautifully as its own creation and deserves to spawn some sequels of its own — before crossing back over with Yen in Ip Man 7.