The Master Z: Ip Man Legacy movie saga based on the life of renowned martial artist Ip Man, master of Wing Chun, each film in the series has become a box office success and a critical darling not only in Asia but also throughout the West, especially in the United States, the three movies that have come out to date have a legion of fans who do not hesitate to express their admiration for each new installment, due in part to the action scenes displayed on screen.
With the fourth movie to be released this year in July, and with Ip Man 3 being released in cinemas four years ago, there was an interest in getting a spinoff out in the hope that the public wouldn’t wait too long for a new release. This spinoff won’t count with the protagonist of the Grandmaster‘s Martial Arts film franchise Ip Man (Donnie Yen).
Instead, it will be focused on Ip Man 3’s Wing Chun Grandmaster rival Cheung Tin-Chi (Max Zhang), who gave a powerhouse performance alongside Donnie Yen in Ip Man 3’s memorable action fighting climax.
The story begins when Cheung Tin-Chi (Max Zhang) who had previously appeared in Ip Man 3 where he ended up suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of Ip Man, he was forced to work briefly as a mercenary of sorts for a gang of thugs, he felt depressed, distanced himself from the band of thugs, he quit practicing martial arts, and started operating a grocery store, staying low-profile with his only son. Everything changes when he finds himself in trouble and has to face a rich and powerful foreigner Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista).
In a slight detour from his path in Ip Man 3, Cheung’s return to martial arts has to do more with more noble and altruistic reasons than with him trying to reclaim his former glory for personal reasons. The story is by Edmond Wong, and the additional collaboration of Chan Tai-Lee, key individuals in writing the scripts for Ip Man movies. The formula of those movies continues to be valid in this spinoff, and the recurring themes are present again to the delight of the viewers, themes such as the following: injustice, honor, betrayal, family values, morals, colonialism, and courage.
It is here when one begins to notice a notable flaw that will not be to the liking of a casual moviegoer, there is nothing remarkable as to how Cheung’s story is executed on screen, it is simple and skeletal, it simply goes through the motions. The pacing is a true chore to sit through, the story has a few highs but more often than not lows.
It has a solid premise, but it doesn’t keep itself focused on its primary protagonist story, but instead always detours into other subplots begging for more attention than the movie gives them. Most of these subplots don’t go anywhere, the real culprit being a corny romantic subplot between Cheung and Julia.
Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, who replaces the director of the previous Ip Man movies Wilson Yip, everything is the same with the shakeup in the directors chair, since the wire work in the film series continues to be present, although it is more noticeable, and there is a willingness on Yuen’s part to establish its iconic vertical staging for maximum effect in a portion of the film’s fight scenes.
The camera always keeps a distance from the actors in the fight scenes, but with appropriate zooms when required. Yuen who is also a martial arts choreographer contributed to choreographing the fights in the film, which are spectacular and sight to behold, not for nothing Yuen was a choreographer in important film projects such as Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the Matrix trilogy.
The cast fully immersed themselves in the film’s fight scenes, Michelle Yeoh, in her skill with swords, Dave Bautista who brings some variety and unpredictability when fighting with Max Zhang, due to his experience in wrestling and MMA fighting, which is a great contrast to the agility and grace of a martial art such as Wing Chun, and there is a surprise cameo by Tony Jaa where he shows Muay Thai.
The choreography is somewhat disorganized in some parts, especially in later parts of the film. There is also a greater disposition towards humor in the fight scenes, compared to Ip Man’s serious fight scenes.
The action set pieces are gorgeous looking and incredible, there is a particular set piece at the beginning with several neon-tinted signs and awnings highlighting the most gripping martial arts prowess in the film, the moviegoer can clearly see elbows cracking, feets hitting hard, fists punching relentlessly, with bodies being tossed through glass windows, and also being flipped across walls, a knock to your senses in a thrilling and exhilarating fashion.
The performances are a bit of a mixed bag, Zhang sells extremely well the martial arts prowess his character is supposed to have, and when he regained his confidence after once again doing martial arts you truly believe it. Michelle Yeoh is a sight to behold, performance wise and action wise, she elevates her material remarkably well.
Dave Bautista, so charismatic and with a fine debonnaire performance, with a not so subtle predilection for the hammy over the course of the film.
Chrissie Chau is overreacting and overacting in her role as an opium addict, and Liu Yan is fairly decent as the love interest, sheepishly bland sometimes.
As for Xing Yu and Kevin Cheng, the first is a decent but not engaging enough acting-wise, and as for the second, he is not well rounded and suited for that particular type of character.
And finally, Tony Jaa is slightly disappointing, he doesn’t speak or emotes whatsoever, but he lets his fists and kicks do the talking. So, silver lining?
In the end Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is all about not deviating about the already established formula, but without resisting the urge of shaking things up a little bit.
For example, Michelle Yeoh and Liu Yan characters are pretty badass and well adept in martial arts, appearing in several of them over the course of the film, something of a rarity, even fans of the Ip Man film series will agree that no women have ever in those films been the badass type, instead woman roles were predominantly passive at best, but subservient at worst.
It has something of a message focused on philosophical, and political issues, that doesn’t go anywhere, and it doesn’t leave any impact whatsoever on the plot. Some melodramatic shifts, that end up being rather corny, there is a love ballad in a pivotal scene for some reason that pulls you out of the scene.
For a critical point of view, it’s a mixed bag, but for a martial arts action film movie fan there is nothing else like it. You can deny that the Master Z: Ip Man Legacy film is fun, exciting, action-oriented and perfectly capable of letting you have a very good time. It has quite enough style to compensate the substance, in taking to account that its a spinoff of a film saga notorious for having little plot centered entirely in action-heavy setpieces, this is like a cakewalk of that, but sure enough, it’s fine by what it is, entertainment in its purest form.