Master Z: Ip Man Legacy
2019, NR, 108 min. Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping. Starring Max Zhang, Dave Bautista, Michelle Yeoh, Liu Yan, Tony Jaa, Donnie Yen, Xing Yu.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., April 19, 2019
Over the years, many filmmakers have tried to capture the life story of Ip Man, a Chinese grandmaster whose individual accomplishments were only heightened by his legacy as Bruce Lee's teacher. This franchise alone has three previous entries and a fourth on its way; starring the incomparable Donnie Yen, the Ip Man films have become the gold standard for martial arts. Or so I've heard, anyways. As someone who has never seen any of the original series, jumping in with the first spinoff film from the original trilogy may be less-than-ideal, but I needn't have worried. Good fight choreography is the universal language.
After losing his behind-closed-doors match with Ip Man, Wing Chung master Cheung Tin Chi (Zhang) has retired to a simple life in the city. It's there that he crosses paths with Julia (Liu) and her brother Fu (Yu), a pair of generous bar owners who oversee the local entertainment scene. When the trio runs afoul of local gang lord Tso Ngan Kwan (Yeoh) and her ambitious younger brother, Tin Chi must grudgingly return to the art of Wing Chung - but only if he can survive an anonymous hitman (Jaa) and a corrupt restaurateur (Bautista) first.
While the film leans heavily on characters from the last volume in teh franchise (2015's Ip Man 3), Master Z: Ip Man Legacy offers more than enough context clues for those foolish enough to go into the franchise cold. The opening credits offer a rough rehash of the events from the previous film, while several flashbacks – including a few featuring Yen – offer a glimpse at the secret fight that broke Tin Chi's spirit. And honestly, we'd be fine without them. This is a film focused on delivering top-notch fight scenes; audiences are undoubtedly here to watch both Michelle Yeoh and Dave Bautista throw down against Max Zhang's titular character, and these sequences don't disappoint.
Even as a 56-year-old, Yeoh still shows that she's capable of handling any fight choreography you throw at her. Bautista, meanwhile, serves as an interesting metaphor for the film's underlying political message. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy presents the colonial British forces as the true enemy. Any of the white characters seen in this film are either greedy or corrupt, and Bautista's fighting style – a brutal and inelegant mixture of punches and throws – helps underscore this dichotomy. Martial arts are as much an expression of culture as a form of self-defense, and Bautista's hulking presence serves as a reminder of what Chinese citizens were up against as a British colony.
It's probably fair to say that fans of Ip Man will be able to appreciate this franchise more than the rest of us - and the way it teases out the historical truths from the narrative embellishment - but others can appreciate good fight choreography when we see it. The performers are strong, the plot is good enough, and the Hong Kong setting allows Master Z: Ip Man Legacy to occasionally prove its political ambition. What more could you ask for from an action film?