Legendary Wing Chun practitioner Ip Man is famous for popularizing the Wing Chun style the world over and for having taught Bruce Lee, among other students. You’d think that legacy alone would be ripe for great films, but this didn’t truly start taking off until 2008. Once the hugely successful Donnie Yen film Ip Man hit the scene, it seems like everyone and their mother was ready to add onto the legacy of Ip Man.
After completing a trilogy of films, Yen hung up the reigns and was content to let Ip Man’s legacy be. His time in the spotlight was over and he was ready to move on from starring in Kung Fu films. While we now know this was a bunch of marketing talk (Ip Man 4 is currently scheduled to be released sometime in 2019), the producers of the successful franchise were likely not going to wait for Yen to change his mind.
In comes Master Z: Ip Man Legacy. A direct sequel and spin-off to Ip Man 3, Master Z follows the journey of Cheung Tin Chi (Zhang Jin) after his defeat to Ip Man in the climactic battle of Ip Man 3. Featuring an all-star cast and an esteemed director at the helm, I can’t help but wonder if this film was rushed out to capitalize on the Ip Man craze more than contribute anything to its legacy.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy
Director: Yuen Woo-Ping
Release Date: December 21, 2018 (China), April 12, 2019 (USA)
Master Z opens with a brief recap of the final events of Ip Man 3, explaining how Cheung Tin Chi lost to master Ip Man in a private duel. Humiliated, Tin Chi decides to vanish from the world of martial arts following words of advice from Ip Man. After working a few jobs as a mercenary, Tin Chi opens a grocery store in Hong Kong and proceeds to live a humble life where he can restore his honor.
During a delivery run, Tin Chi happens upon a group of thugs chasing down a woman named Nana (Chrissie Chau) and her friend Julia (Liu Yan). When the thugs accidentally break Tin Chi’s present, he jumps into action and kicks the crap out of them. When Tin Chi catches up with the women after the fight, he learns that Nana is an opium addict and has practically become a slave to Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng).
After dealing with the police in a very on-the-nose scene about corruption, Tin Chi is later attacked at night by the gang. His home razed to the ground, Tin Chi turns to Julia for help following the incident. Julia’s brother, Fu (Xing Yu), owns the Gold Bar nightclub and allows Tin Chi to work off his rental fees by hiring him at the club. That’s an awful lot of setup for this movie, but the plot continues adding layers and layers from there.
I’ll spare you more explanation, though, as the story isn’t going to be the reason Master Z entertains you. Despite having paragraphs upon paragraphs of a summary, the general plot could be summed up as, “Tin Chi kicks dudes asses while uncovering a drug ring.” Much like the sequels following the original Ip Man film, this is a work of pure fantasy and most of that can be seen in the action sequences.
Following the attack on Tin Chi’s house, a rather thrilling wire-fu action scene takes place. Tin Chi and a bunch of goons are jumping between neon signs, throwing fists and bodies around and it is quite the sight. It recalls moments from movies like Once Upon a Time in China where pure spectacle was put front and center instead of adherence to reality.
Under the careful hand of Woo-Ping (famous for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Drunken Master, and even The Matrix), all of the action moments are framed quite well. Instead of utilizing shaky cam or a baffling amount of cuts, Master Z sometimes looks like an old-school martial arts film. Jackie Chan’s famous method of showing a split second of repeated footage for close-ups is in full effect, making hits extra impactful and drawing the viewer’s eyes to the focal point during pivotal moments. It helps that each actor is trained in some kind of fighting style, which means very little stunt doubles are ever on camera.
While all of the action moments are appropriately thrilling, it’s the moments in between that deflate the experience a little. Story may not be the reason you’re here, but Master Z has a crap ton of plot running through its 108-minute runtime. I’m not entirely convinced the original idea for Master Z was to make a spin-off TV series, because there are possibly four different starts and stops throughout Tin Chi’s journey. The mid-point of the film could be considered a finale, yet there’s still roughly 45 minutes of film to sit through.
An absurd amount of characters are brought in, given quick explanations, and then disappear for what feels like an eternity. Tin Chi’s son is a driving force for him wanting to clean up Hong Kong, but after the beginning of the movie, he’s gone until the very end. Dave Bautista plays what is clearly a villain, but he doesn’t assume that role until 30 minutes after his introduction and with barely any build-up. At multiple points, I said to myself, “Whatever happened to X character,” only for the film to then bring them back as I finished my sentence.
The cuts between scenes also don’t make a whole lot of sense. I know kung fu films aren’t known for having particularly strong plots, but even the cheesiest of ’70s Shaw Brothers productions had better thought put into the order of events. Master Z is almost like four scripts thrown into a blender with the end result being cool action and needlessly complicated narrative structure.
One need look no further than the two “guest” stars, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Jaa. Clearly here because of their star power, both actors serve very little purpose to the overall plot. Yeoh plays the sister of Kit, but she only stars in a single action scene and gets a speech that feels like it was included purely to capitalize on her powerful moment from Crazy Rich Asians. Jaa fares even worse, not having any spoken dialogue and getting one goofy action sequence before disappearing for the entire film. This is the kind of tacked on nonsense that has bloated a lot of modern Chinese productions lately.
Despite all of those criticisms, though, Master Z does at least provide entertainment. Right as you start to become utterly confused by the plot, a villain will do something so comically evil that you can’t help but laugh. Just as the story starts to drag a little, a thrilling action scene picks up and recounts some of the best moments from classic films. With regards to its chopsocky inspirations, Master Z is pretty damn good. It feels appropriately silly and light, which makes up for how convoluted the execution can be.
This may not be Woo-Ping firing on all cylinders, but Master Z: Ip Man Legacy at least knows how to keep you engaged. While it could have used better editing, the action bits are executed well and the goofy tone is sure to keep you smiling. Maybe it doesn’t pay homage to Ip Man like Donnie Yen’s films, but at least it doesn’t stain the legacy of the legendary teacher.