5 out of 5
Directed by: Yuen Woo-ping
We live in a world with multiple Undisputed and Jarhead films and further “franchises” that I would never have guessed at, so I should not be surprised that Ip Man turned into a sequel-boasting series, extended into a a full-on spin-off with Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy. What I could be surprised at, though, is while it’s lacking in Scott Adkins (something those other mentioned flicks had to varying degrees), Master Z has quite a list of stars, and also steps outside of the shadow of its parent films to actually develop its own characters and mantra. Fair enough, the Ip Man films are all pretty good already, but it’s impressive that the further away we get from that first story, that we’re still maintaining a sense of originality, badass fight choreography, and overall quality.
Max Zhang plays Cheung Tin Chi – the actor and the character both from Ip Man 3 – as a once-Wing Chun master who has seemingly taken to a quieter life as a single dad and shop owner, maybe making some scratch on the side as a thug for hire. The latter point seems minor at first but sets up a fascinating difference between Master Z and the Ip flicks: While in the latter, the Ipster is always pulled in to fighting against his will, Cheung admittedly wants to fight. The overall trajectory is admittedly the same, as both masters retire for various reasons and find themselves all a flippin’ and battlin’ anyway, but the slight shift in each characters’ perspective on the sport of combat makes the Master Z movie delightfully light on its feet, allowing us to embrace the over-the-top cartoonishness of the masterfully mapped out scuffles. Which are intensely delightful, by the way, shot across (and up and down) bright, neoned, stage-like sets that represent busy, dreamlike Hong Kong streets and its bars and restaurants and back alleys, supporting the gravity-defying wirework and the general awesomeness of watching Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, and a handful of excellent performers do amazing non-wire-worked things, amazing wire-worked things, and then simply amazingly shot/scripted things, like the juggling of a glass of liquor between Zhang and Yeoh or the wrestler-meets-martial arts match that occurs when Dave Bautista does his thing.
The storyline wrangling these characters together certainly isn’t the most original – Cheung bumps in to the wrong gangster, Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng), sparking a rivalry that leads to Cheung losing his home, fueled all the more by internal gang-beef between Kit and sister Tso Ngan Kwan (Yeoh) over their money-earning operations – but the script doesn’t rush these developments, nor force any overt morality or messaging through them, allowing room for interesting, non-plot-centric quirks for each character and for each actor to bring a relative sense of depth to their roles, appropriate to the heightened, simplified world in which the movie takes place. The story is functional for getting us to fight sequences, yes, but not the extent that it’s wasted screentime: you don’t mind the moments inbetween the action. Even Bautista, given the most one-dimensional part, has such a presence on screen that he’s a blast to watch.
Ip Man 4 is next in this franchise, but now I’m ready for the Ip extended universe. I’ll watch other spin-offs. I’d watch spin-offs of spin-offs, with Tony Jaa’s mysterious assassin from Master Z given his own flick, or, like, further adventures in the bar where Cheung works… Or more Master Z flicks. It’s not that you haven’t seen all of the various elements of The Ip Man Legacy, to some degree, in other martial arts movies, but it’s a rarity when all those pieces fit together so well and so entertainingly for the entirety of a film.