Review: Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy Brings a Light Touch to a Bloated Series

The film is a reminder of the potential of these films before they became weighed down by blockbuster-ready excesses.

Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy
Photo: Well Go USA

Though part of the Ip Man series, Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy doesn’t feature the eponymous Wing Chun master. Instead, the film follows Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang), who challenged Ip for the right to call himself grandmaster of Wing Chun in Ip Man 3. Portrayed in that film as a vicious, unscrupulous fighter greedy for fame, Cheung is humbled by defeat here, so ashamed of his loss and the hubris that led to it that he gives up martial arts and opens a grocery store. But as these things must go in action films, Cheung is eventually called back to fight, albeit this time for altruistic reasons and not for personal glory.

Compared to the increasingly elaborate, wildly extrapolated plots and antics of the prior Ip Man films, this spinoff is agreeably spartan in its setup. After briefly recapping Cheung’s loss in the last film, Master Z gives us an equally concise view of his quiet life, which is disrupted one day when he inadvertently stumbles across local gangsters attacking Nana (Chrissie Chau), an indebted opium addict, and her friend, Julia (Liu Yan). Julia holds her own against the men in a short, fluidly choreographed fight, but Cheung cuts through the mobsters in seconds, immediately landing on the radar of the gang’s leader, Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng).

The fighting during this sequence is pared down but nonetheless intricate; its antic quality is close in spirit to classic Hong Kong action-comedy. There’s a slightly goofy, down-to-earth edge to this film that’s absent in its more serious-minded predecessors that carries over even to the more elaborate set pieces, like an inspired sequence in which Cheung and a band of attackers fight atop the neon street signs of local shops, leaping and weaving around glowing platforms. Where the Ip Man films stress the almost superhuman abilities of Donnie Yen’s Ip Man, Master Z foregrounds Cheung’s reluctant heroism and his attempts to maintain his newfound sense of discipline even as he tears through underlings.

Cheung’s run-in with Sai Kit exposes him to a far larger criminal syndicate maintained by the mobster’s sister, Kwan (Michelle Yeoh). Compared to her hothead brother, Kwan is refined and calculating. Surrounded by male subordinates in ill-fitting suits and half-open changshans, Kwan wears an elegant, white cheongsam that projects an image of ironic innocence befitting her status as the legitimizing face of the business, with arts and charity patronage to sanitize Kwan’s illicit activities. Some of Master Z’s best scenes involve the internal politicking between siblings, who often fight each other as dedicatedly as they do Cheung.

Cheung must also contend with Davidson (Dave Bautista), a local restaurateur who moonlights as an enforcer for Kwan. Bautista cuts an alternately intimidating and amusing profile; his suits do the film’s most daring stuntwork in their seam-stretching struggle to contain the actor’s massive bulk, and Bautista leans into his character’s innate silliness, most memorably drawing out Davidson’s monologue about how to cook the perfect steak. Davidson also brings a nice style clash to his fight with Cheung, as Bautista’s own MMA and wrestling training contrasts sharply with Zhang’s more fluid wushu.

Master Z sometimes loses the focus of its straightforward story, getting bogged down in half-developed, stale political commentary in Kwan’s mingling of business and crime, and the film never fully develops its redemptive arc for the humbled Cheung. Still, with Ip Man set to release yet another film in its main series, the more delicate theatrics contained here provide a much-needed palate cleanser for the increasingly absurd franchise. This lighter touch is most clearly seen in Cheung and Kwan’s first meeting, in which Kwan tests his reflexes by shoving a drink off a table, which he catches with his palm before engaging in a kind of pas de deux with Kwan as both curve and flip the glass without ever gripping the drink or spilling a drop. It’s a brief, almost whimsical flourish that epitomizes the film’s smaller scale, a reminder of the potential of these films before they became weighed down by blockbuster-ready excesses.

Score: 
 Director: Yuen Woo-ping  Screenwriter: Edmond Wong  Distributor: Well Go USA  Running Time: 107 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2018  Buy: Video

Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in MTV News and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.

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