Pride is just as tremendous a motivator to surpass one’s self as it can be the source of one’s downfall. Among the many other little life lessons the Ip Man series has peppered its films with, the pride with which the teachers of various schools and martial arts forms carry themselves has sometimes led them to greatness, and at other times to agonizing defeat, typically at the hands of Ip Man himself (played by Donnie Yen in each entry). Lo and behold, in a pleasant twist with respect to the direction a franchise can take, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy actually explores the path chosen by one such vanquished rival, Cheung Tin Chi (Zhang Jin), following his failed attempt at besting Ip Man in the third picture.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy commences with Cheung barely making it out alive from a local gangster’s living quarters after calling it quits from a brief career of being a fist for hire, now hoping to live a peaceful, modest, and relatively reclusive life with his young son. Cheung has essentially abandoned his previous life as an instructor of Wing Chun, having realized that not only did Ip Man defeat him with pure skills, but that his insatiable desire to prove his worth regardless of the cost was exposed for all to see. This being a martial arts flick, trouble unsurprisingly lands straight into his lap — or onto his bicycle in this case — as a chance encounter with a young opium addict (Chrissie Chau) leads him into direct confrontation with her nefarious pusher, Tso Sai Kit (Keven Cheng), himself a rebel in the eyes of Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh), his elder sister, who strives to wash away their organization’s dubious reputation and go clean. What follows is the introduction of corrupt cops, a master assassin (Tony Jaa), a potential love interest (Liu Yu), and a restaurant owner (Dave Bautista) who may be more than meets the eye — and of course, fights, fights, fights!
Such emphasis on fights is natural when it comes to motion pictures of this nature. The trick for the filmmakers to master (pun intended) is how to sow the tapestry of a sensible, moderately engaging story to tie all the fisticuffs together in a nice package. As audience members, it is essential to put one’s expectations into perspective. Should a patron anticipate storytelling on the level of King Lear when sitting down to indulge in Master Z? Of course not, but not all martial arts movies are created equal, and that is what distinguishes the bad, the great, and the perfectly fine. Yuen Woo-ping falls in the latter category.
Oh, make no mistake, there is plenty to bask in the glory of throughout the film’s running time. For one, director Woo-ping has made a career out of elaborately choreographed battle scenes involving not only wonderfully prepared actors and true martial artists, but heightened with the employment of wire work, which makes its presence known on numerous occasions in Master Z. Wirework isn’t for everyone. Some fight film aficionados prefer to savour the contests inspired purely by how far human beings can push themselves, Jackie Chan films springing to mind immediately. That said, wire work adds a lightly fantastical dimension to action sequences. The characters don’t fly per se, but rather float from one balcony to another, or from a rooftop to an audaciously decorative neon sign. They stick to whiles much like Spiderman can, albeit for not as long as the famed Marvel comics and movie superhero.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy makes tremendous use of said wire work, oftentimes at unexpected turns. If you ever wondered what it would look like to see Dave Bautista, a giant of a man, jump hysterically high in anticipation of crushing another human being, then Master Zwill be right up the reader’s ally. There are a number of sequences that amaze and inspire by their ingenuity and lavishness, one particular highlight being a brilliant battle between Cheung and a trio of assailants in the city’s popular district after sundown, with the characters hopping from one colourful neon advert to another all while kicking and punching the bejesus out of each other.
Speaking of locations, on this count too Woo-ping’s picture scores highly. Much attention was invested into the beautifully rendered sets, be it the nighttime streets where the pavement always has that wet, film noir look to it, or luxurious restaurants and nightclubs that attract both local Hong Kong socialites and American sailors looking for some saucy respite from their duties. There is nary a scene that doesn’t have something nice to look at.
On a final, positive note, the cast equips itself rather well. Zhang Jin, although playing an introverted character, shines in the lead role predominantly through wonderful ‘eye acting.’ Xing Yu, as Julia’s brother and nightclub owner, is robustly charismatic whilst providing some of the picture’s comic relief. It’s always pleasant to see Michelle Yeoh do anything, and while she doesn’t do a whole lot in this endeavour, her presence is certainly the highlight of any scene she featured in. Dave Bautista returns to playing a villain for the first time in a while, and rest assured he is not the sort of man whose temper one wants to tamper with.
With so many positives, how can Master Z: Ip Man Legacy not earn higher praise? In a nutshell, the script is the culprit. It’s one of those movies where literally every single beat can be anticipated from a country mile away, in addition to offering a familiar — if not to say rote general — plot outline: fallen idol lives a loner’s life, said idol gets mixed up in the business of local ne’er-do-wells, prompting him (or sometimes her) to rekindle with their own potential, save the day, and become happy again. Smaller plot beats lack any gusto, imagination, and even reality checks considering the moviegoing market of 2019, such as Cheung telling his love interest, Julia, to stay home while he trots off to right the wrongs inflicted onto them.
Will adrenaline junkies get their money’s worth with Yuen Woo-ping’s latest effort? The odds of that happening are undoubtedly high. But the fireworks of Master Z: Ip Man Legacy come with a fair warning: viewers will have to wade through mind-numbing predictability, story-wise. When punches land, however, they land hard.