After three films depicting a folk-hero version of Ip Man who inspires revolt against the Japanese, British colonials occupying Hong Kong, and even Mike Tyson, the Grandmaster’s martial arts franchise gets its first spinoff with Master Z: Ip Man Legacy. Though also written by Edmond Wong, mainstay director Wilson Yip has been replaced by Yuen Woo Ping, the legendary fight choreographer and director known for graceful martial arts choreography both in his own films (Drunken Master, Iron Monkey) and in his work better known in the West (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Matrix).
This new film continues a character arc from Ip Man 3, picking up with Cheung Tin-Chi (Max Zhang), a rival Wing Chun Grandmaster who becomes a mercenary following a humiliating defeat against Ip. There’s a tension between Cheung’s clear talent for martial arts, his desire to live a simple, straightforward life, and his struggle to deal with his defeat and loss of his reputation. Instead of trying to bounce back, he renounces Wing Chun entirely and take on a crime syndicate.
This being a Yuen Woo-ping film, there’s a little more wire work than in previous Ip Man films, coupled with more vertical staging; one particularly acrobatic fight scene takes place amongst a web of neon signs three stories above the ground. The camera often keeps at a distance to display the full extent of the nimble athleticism of the film’s stars, but the impact isn’t any lesser for it. It’s devastating, bone-crunching, and elegant in equal measure, and not without brief philosophical musings on the purpose of it all. A peer of Cheung’s even hints at a nice counterpoint to the Ip Man series’ “martial arts is not about winning” mantra. It’s in these moments where Master Z feels most sure-footed.
Zhang is nimble and exciting to watch, and brings loads of personality to a character who is dragged from one action scene to the next, either by reasons outside of his control or a sense of duty that he can’t seem to shake. While his motivations and feelings are clear, his struggle becomes consumed by the rest of the plot and all of the outsized characters that come with it, be it Michelle Yeoh as Kwan, the calm, authoritative head of a local Triad or Cheung’s irritable boss, Xing Yu. The film casts Cheung as someone who has room to grow, who isn’t simply unbeatable; unlike Donnie Yen’s seemingly immortal Ip Man, he takes hits, makes mistakes, and is more relatable for it.
Outside of Yeoh and Zhang, there’s plenty of delightful surprise in Master Z’s (slightly overstuffed) cast. The greatest novelty for Western audiences is Dave Bautista, suited up in an inversion of his gentle giant screen persona, as a violent, hulking brute who hides behind his charitable actions. Tony Jaa also shows up for a few fights as a mysterious henchman in a bad hat. Both are somewhat under-utilized, only appearing in a few scenes apiece, which is a shame as their presence feels like a shakeup in a way that the (bizarre) Mike Tyson appearance of Ip Man 3 could have only dreamed of. Bautista in particular makes for a delightful, terrifying, and insurmountable foe, despite only having about eight lines, half of which are about steaks.
There’s a lot of plot crammed in between the martial arts and acrobatics as stories about redemption overlap with threads of sibling rivalry, addiction, British colonialism, and corruption. At any point there’re perhaps four different parties all involved in the same fight for different, often obscured reasons. While the various strands of melodrama don’t always land, it’s involving enough as Wong’s script moves the pieces into place for the next burst of action.
Despite the busyness of the narrative and the size of the cast, a lot of the spaces used in Master Z feel strange, like empty scenery to break, and often is - particularly in the case of the Bar Street set, the neon-drenched, downtown area where most of the narrative unfolds. It mostly feels like a theme park, or like if the eerie, abstract design of Tokyo Drifter was unintentional. This effect is exacerbated by a bizarre lack of extras that makes most scenes staged outside feel like a set piece from a stage play. The oversight is distracting, and a betrayal of the rest of the film’s technical flash.
Master Z is at its best in the fight scenes and when it lets go of the self-seriousness of its parent franchise. Yuen Woo-ping could be accused of having lost his touch somewhat in recent years (consider Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny), and Master Z doesn’t entirely disprove that, with a slew of exciting action scenes tied together by a slight, predictable and unwieldy plot and some production design that feels unfinished.
While it’s wrapped in a package that is somehow cornier than Ip Man (to the point where there’s an original ballad drop in the third act), it’s still a good time; this is a film in which Michelle Yeoh casually chops a man’s arm off with a sabre during a negotiation, and where in the midst of a fight, a man comments “I like somersaults. What’s it to you?”
If nothing else, Master Z carries on the spirit of the Ip Man franchise as ridiculous, exciting, expertly choreographed comfort food.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is now in theaters.
Kambole Campbell is a writer whose work appears on Little White Lies, Birth Movies Death, SciFi Now and Vague Visages.