MASTER Z: THE IP MAN LEGACY (2018) review

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One of the most memorable characters in the Ip Man franchise, ambitious Wing Chun master Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang), gets his own well-deserved spin-off in Yuen Woo Ping’s Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy. After being defeated – behind closed doors – by Ip man at the end of the third installment, the humbled Cheung is now leaving peacefully with his son in Hong Kong, where he owns a small grocery store. His days as a martial arts teacher are over, and so is his side-job as a thug, which doesn’t sit well with his former employer (Yuen Wah). Cheung can’t stay out of trouble for long: after he defends bar hostesses Julia (Liu Yan) and Nana (Chrissie Chau) against a local mobster Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng) and his henchmen, his store is burnt down as retribution. Now homeless and tracked down by a mysterious assassin (Tony Jaa) working for his former employer, Cheung is helped by Fu (Shi Yanneng), the owner of a local bar, for whom he starts working as a waiter. And two dangerous figures loom large over him: mobster Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh), the sister of Tso Sai Kit, and Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista), a restaurant owner and philanthropist who’s also a drug trafficker on the side.

Cheung Tin Chi was an interesting character in Ip Man 3, a kind of distorted mirror image to Ip Man: both brilliant Wing Chun masters, one a plebeian on the rise and the other a humbled patrician, the former as coolly amoral and broodingly ambitious as the latter was staunchly moral and measuredly jovial. The problem with Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy is not so much its episodic plot that rambles along with only occasional moments of urgency – after all Ip Man films are episodic – but the fact that the character of Cheung Tin Chi has been smoothed out into roughly the same kind of person as Ip Man: his ambition and darker impulses are gone, and he now fights solely for justice, bashing mobsters and gweilos over the head equally.

Furthermore, the power of the Ip Man films was in great part in the arcs of its character (often towards selflessness), be they the lead – Ip’s personal journey from selfish complacency to selfless resistance in the first film, his realization that the love of his wife was more important than any martial arts prestige in the third film – or supporting characters: Gordon Lam going from self-loathing collaboration with the Japanese to solidarity to his own people, or the epiphanic humbling of Sammo Hung and Max Zhang’s characters in the following episodes. In Master Z, almost no character has an arc: they all end the film either exactly as they were in the beginning, or dead (Philip Keung does replicate the evolution of Gordon Lam’s character in the first film, but it’s a weak footnote). Or they’re the usual irredeemable white devils.

Fortunately, this shortcoming is somewhat mitigated by a great cast. While his character has lost much of his appeal, Max Zhang still embodies him with low-key charisma and a mesmerizingly lithe physicality. The excellent Dave Bautista makes the most of a role as poorly tacked on as Mike Tyson’s was in Ip Man 3, but just as powerfully threatening, and so does Kevin Cheng with the painfully one-note Tso Sai Kit (Patrick Tam returns as Ma King Sang, but does anybody care?). The underrated Liu Yan is fine and gets a rare opportunity to play something else than a sexual object – though that’s probably because that role is already taken by Chrissie Chau. Tony Jaa doesn’t get much more than a recurring cameo as a faintly ridiculous black-clad assassin, but Shi Yanneng shines (in a different role than in Ip Man, of course) with his usual hard-hitting boyish charm. And of course there’s Michelle Yeoh, radiant as a mob sister with an iron hand, pure class and deserving her own spin-off, or at least to cross-over into Ip Man’s storyline.

Beautiful cinematography by David Fu and Seppe Van Grieken hews closer to the luch colors of Poon Hang San’s work on Ip Man 2 than to O Sing Pui’s near monochrome in Ip Man or Kenny Tse’s sepia tones in Ip Man 3. Yuen Woo Ping direction is solid in a workmanlike, expectedly far from the inspired flourishes of his early-nineties heyday as a director. His action directing, with his brother Yuen Shun Yee, is somewhat uneven – by his lofty standards, of course. There’s an impressive one-against-many amid scaffolding and neon signs, but the Max Zhang-Tony Jaa rematch is awkwardly-staged and well below their dizzying face-off at the end of S.P.L. 2. There’s a delighfully funny friendly match between Zhang and Shi Yanneng, but a lot of quick scuffles against Tso’s henchmen are quickly forgotten.

What is less easy to forget, however is a central show-stopper when Zhang and Shi dispose of a roomful of thugs before the latter goes hatchet against his opponent’s kukri blades, and the former has a superb duel with Michelle Yeoh. If only there was a bit of dramatic urgency to power the scene beyond a gorgeous display of martials arts skill. Dave Bautista’s imposing stature and charisma do bring a sense of danger to the film’s final reel, however. His double-faced role is memorable and deserved more screentime, but it does introduce a fearful brutality, pummeling both Shi Yanneng and Max Zhang in two excellents fights. Too bad then, that the film has to end on a risibly rushed coda.

Long Story Short:  Weakly-scripted yet solidly entertaining, Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy is classed-up by the presence of Michelle Yeoh and Dave Bautista, and powered by expectedly superb fights. ***

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2 Comments

  1. Wout Thielemans

     /  March 15, 2019

    The scaffolding fight was totaly ruined by ridiculous wirework, as was the fight with Tony Jaa. And the scuffle with Xing Yu was so overcranked it seemed to come from a Benny Hill sketch show. When the wires are forgotten, there are good fights. But these occasions are far too rare.That’s what really ruins the film for me. You are quite right that Cheung Tin Chi has become a one-note dull character, since he has no one to really play off.

    Reply
    • I didn’t mind the slightly over-the-top feel the wirework gave to the scaffolding fight, though I agree it was more jarring and awkward on the Tony Jaa face-off. I think wires are fine as long as they’re used subtly/artfully. Li Chung Chi is excellent at that, but Yuen Woo Ping can be a bit on the nose with his use of wires.

      Reply

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