Ip Man sure did not seem like a likely candidate for ‘franchise launcher’ back when it hit in 2008. That original film is a fairly somber character piece following the eponymous grandmaster of Wing Chun, and Bruce Lee instructor, Ip Man (played by Donnie Yen, already a legendary fixture of martial arts cinema before his now-signature character) as he trained and studied his chosen form of martial arts before the Japanese invasion of 1937 eventually forces him into positions where he has to fight. Besides the incredible choreography and editing of Ip Man’s fight sequences, what made that first film so special was the character of Ip Man himself, a man of almost pathological humility and politeness. In a genre studded with larger-than-life combatants, Yen’s portrayal of Ip Man has always been noteworthy for his gentle, calm manner. Ip Man’s trademark move isn’t a body-devastating killing blow, but the way he always bows and says, “Thank you for letting me win” after finishing up rearranging an opponent’s bones. The Yen-led Ip Man series is also noteworthy for just how dedicated each film is to the melodrama and emotional arcs running through each films, items that are often treated as window dressing in other martial arts films. These are movies that spend a lot of time on Ip Man’s relationship to his wife, children, and evolving relationship with his own skills and beliefs. It works because Yen remains a compelling leading man, because the drama is often very aptly written and played, and because the aforementioned fight scenes are so good that you’ll sit through any amount of talking to get to the scenes where Yen pulverizes a human face with 40 punches fired off in like 5 seconds.
The Ip Man films have gotten progressively broader and more exaggerated (he fought Mike Tyson in the last one, and will fight Scott Adkins in Ip Man 4 this year), making it at least somewhat palatable to now launch into an almost-totally fantastical spin-off that takes its cues less from somber biography and more from the high-flying action of the wuxia genre at large.
Which brings us to Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, out today on digital and Blu-ray. Max Zhang (who got his start as a stunt performer on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and who recently starred as the fantastic villain in SPL II: A Time for Consequences) stars here as Cheung Tin-chi (I don’t know why he’s called ‘Master Z’) introduced in Ip Man 3 as a rickshaw driver and Wing Chun master who coveted Ip Man’s popularity and wealth, eventually leading him to partner with criminals and challenge Ip Man to a fight to prove whose version of Wing Chun was truly superior. Ip Man won that climatic fight, so Master Z picks up with a humbled Tin-chi relocating himself and his son to Hong Kong where he makes a quiet living as a grocer and stays out of the public eye.
Things go astray, as these things do, when Tin-chi rescues Julia (Liu Yan) as she is rescuing her friend Nana (Chrissie Chau) from a gang of dope-peddlers. The cops are on the take, so the gang goes free while Tin-chi gets stuck at the police station and ends up missing the birthday dinner he had planned for his son. It’s hard out here for a martial arts hero. Everyone seems like they should be able to move on with their lives, but the gangsters are all ornery about the whole “being brutally beaten in public” thing and firebomb Tin-chi’s home and business. Julia offers to let him stay with her and her brother, (Xing Yu) and gives him a job working at their restaurant.
But things escalate, as these things do, and pretty soon Tin-chi finds himself caught up in an underworld power struggle that threatens himself and everyone he knows and loves.
These are narrative beats that everyone who has ever seen a martial arts film will know backwards and forwards. But as a framework for a series of high-flying fights, it functions as it needs to. As long as the fights are up to snuff, the movie should still work.
So, are they?
Well, first of all, are you familiar with the individual Yuen Woo-ping? You should be. As director and fight choreographer, Yuen was an instrumental figure in Jackie Chan’s early films, and was already a legend in the field before a run of masterworks as choreographer on The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the Kill Bill films. Yuen can be hit-or-miss as a filmmaker (he stepped in as director for the belated Crouching Tiger sequel, Sword of Destiny, and the film is a wince-inducing tarnishing of the original masterpiece) but when it comes to orchestrating martial arts mayhem, there is no one better.
Yuen’s imagination and skill is on display early and often, with such a wide variety of fights and fighters that Master Z never threatens to get boring. Yuen one-ups the iconic sign-jumping fight from Chocolate within the first half hour of Master Z, that’s how confident he is in the crew he’s put together for this one.
Martial arts cinema fans will presumably be most excited by the poster’s promise of Tony Jaa, Dave Bautista, and Michelle Yeoh, but plenty of films have touted similar deep benches only to squander their resources.
Jaa is credited as a “Special Appearance” which is fitting giving the brevity of his role as a fedora’d enforcer, but his fight with Tin-chi is a lengthy delight, the choreography emphasizing the differences in their styles and the staging forcing the two men into cramped quarters which ups the intensity and skill-level.
Yeoh is also credited as a “Special Appearance”, but she’s playing a significantly larger role. As Tso Ngan Kwan, Yeoh is the leader of the criminal gang and brother to the gangster, Kit (Kevin Cheung) tormenting Tin-chi. Kwan’s goal is to bring the family into legitimate business, a move threatened by Kit’s feud with Tin-chi and deep dive into drug-peddling. Kwan may be interested in going legit, but she’ll still smash an associate’s head for stealing from her. There’s a bit of delayed gratification in Yeoh’s performance, as you wait and wait hoping the film will finally let her in on the action. Sure enough, all good things come to those who wait, and Yeoh remains an untouchable master at wire-fu combat.
Bautista’s role is also something of a slow burn. He shows up early on as the friendly, foreign owner of the high-end restaurant that Tin-chi saves up to take his son to, and pops up sporadically as the friendly face of local business. That character can only really go one way, but Yuen drags his feet getting to the reveal. When it arrives, Bautista makes a big, meaty meal of it, and he throws himself into the wire-work in a way you don’t always get from Americans trying their hand at this sort of fair. Yuen emphasizes the huge discrepancy in size and build between the towering Bautista and his opponent, turning the building-demolishing fight into a true showstopper.
Master Z lacks the strong emotional core that makes the Ip Man films so special, especially as it pertains to the main protagonist’s struggle with his role as man/teacher/father/etc. Here, Tin-chi spends a bunch of time lamenting his fall from grace and the pull of martial arts that he can’t seem to resist, but without the elements of the Ip Man character and Donnie Yen performance that make him so distinctive, there’s nothing to really distinguish Tin-chi from the countless other wuxia heroes we’ve seen grapple with these same failings. When the film slows down to focus on gangland politics or Tin-chi’s domestic life, you can feel things straining in a way they didn’t in the main Ip Man series.
But even if Master Z has shallower pleasures than its predecessors, it has pleasures all the same. The fights are all extraordinary feats of athleticism and filmmaking, and Zhang more than proves that he is capable of holding down the central role of a film. If Tin-chi eventually learns and accepts that he can’t outrun his defeat at Ip Man’s hands, Master Z proves to be a terrifically entertaining film regardless of its origins.