Master Z delivers its fair share of pulpy entertainment and stylish martial arts fights without bringing anything particularly fresh to the genre.
They might not be a full-blown shared universe just yet, but the Ip Man films have certainly taken a step in that direction thanks to the Max Zhang-led spinoff, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy. The original Ip Man and its sequels were box office hits in China that elevated lead Donnie Yen to newfound levels of popularity in his homeland (and, ultimately, led to him gaining international fame in films like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), so it stands to reason that an off-shoot could do something similar for Zhang. Wherever the greater Ip Man franchise goes from here, its first spinoff is more successful than not in realizing its simple, but unpretentious ambitions. Master Z delivers its fair share of pulpy entertainment and stylish martial arts fights without bringing anything particularly fresh to the genre.
Zhang, reprising his Ip Man 3 role here, stars as Cheung Tin-chi, a Wing Chun master who leaves his old life behind him (following his defeat behind closed doors at Ip Man's hands), in favor of a quiet existence running a grocery store with his young son. While Master Z includes black and white flashbacks to key moments from Ip Man 3, the finer details of Tin-chi's backstory are of little relevance to the narrative at hand. As a result, the spinoff serves as a decent entry point for those who're unfamiliar with the previous movies in the Ip Man franchise, but makes for an otherwise unnecessary extension of the property. Nevertheless, it gives Zhang the chance to further demonstrate his mettle as a star (which he does) in a mid-20th century martial arts drama of his own.
Plot-wise, the Master Z script by Ip Man trilogy writers Edmond Wong and Chan Tai Lee weaves together story threads about British colonialists and corrupt police officers, the head of an organized crime gang (Michelle Yeoh) trying to turn her operation into a legitimate business, and Tin-chi attempting - and failing - to keep his head down amidst all this, no longer able to find any meaning in his practice of Wing Chun and life of combat. Suffice it to say, the movie is full of melodramatic subplots and one-dimensional villains, including the opium-dealing Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng, playing Yeoh's onscreen brother) and Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista), a brawny drug smuggler who pays off the cops and uses his posh restaurant as the cover for his crimes. Ultimately, these threads amount to little more than the catalyst for Tin-chi's arc, which is pretty straightforward and might've benefitted from having fewer storylines to compete with for screentime.
Obviously, when it comes to this kind of B-movie genre fare, the major selling point is the martial arts fighting, not the story and character development that comes between it (more on that soon). Still, Master Z generally fails to subvert expections or take its plot threads in unexpected directions, even though some of them (like the one involving Yeoh) might've been able to sustain a whole film on their own. More frustrating, admittedly, are the movie's regressive qualities, like the way it tends to reduce its female characters (those not played by Yeoh, that is) to either helpless damsels, victims brutalized by the movie's bad guys, or capable fighters who're inexplicably left out of the biggest battles. The latter criticism applies specifically to Julia (Liu Yan), a woman who helps Tin-chi and guides him on his personal journey, but is increasingly sidelined in favor of her brother Fu (Xing Yu), as the story progresses.
Fortunately, when it come to the fighting sequences, Master Z is much more successful in execution. The film was directed by the renowned Hong Kong martial arts filmmaker and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (still best known in the U.S. for his work on The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Kill Bill), and his near-fifty years of experience serves the action well here. Master Z's close-quarter combat sequences aren't as innovative as Woo-ping's most famous efforts, but he finds clever ways of staging the battles - most notably, during a fight set atop a collection of business signs - and shoots the action in a visually crisp and cohesive fashion that really showcases the athleticism of his performers and stunt team. It helps that Yeoh, Zhang, and Bautista all have very different fighting styles, so the various throwdowns avoid blurring together and each possess their own distinct look, feel, and rhythm.
Overall, Master of Z is a perfectly serviceable martial arts offering, if one that lacks the rich character-driven storytelling that made the original Ip Man such a noteworthy addition to the genre in the first place. The film might be as cartoony as the "Black Bat" comics that Tin-chi's son is obsessed with, but it seems to recognize that for the most part, and rarely holds itself up as being more than a flashy, insubstantial pice of entertainment. It doesn't really have lavishing production values either, so those who're interested might want to hold off and catch this one at home (assuming it even makes its way to their local theater). As for those who prefer their Ip Man movies to actually feature Ip Man: fear not, Ip Man 4 proper is coming down the pipeline next.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 108 minutes long and is not rated.
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