At this point, the “Ip Man” franchise has firmly embedded itself in our collective consciousness as one of the greatest martial arts movie series’ of all time. If there were any further proof needed of that, look no further than the breakout character of the series’ third chapter getting his own solo adventure in the form of “Master Z: Ip Man Legacy”. With the great Yuen Woo-ping at the helm, superb fight sequences, and a reliably engaging performance by Max Zhang, “Master Z” easily lives up to the wider domain it inhabits while managing to tell its own story that at once feels unique and familiar within the “Ip Man” Cinematic Universe.
Max Zhang reprises his role as Wing Chun grandmaster Cheung Tin-chi, who now shifts his goals from rising to the top of the martial arts world in “Ip Man 3” to simply caring for his young son Fung, played by Henry Zhang. Michelle Yeoh also appears in the role of Tso Ngan Kwan, a former crime boss determined to go straight, while Kevin Cheng portrays her far less altruistic brother, Tso Sai Kit. Former Shaolin disciple Shi Yan Neng steps into the role of Chiu Kam Fu, a night club owner who lends a helping hand to Cheung, with Liu Yan portraying his sister Julia, while Chrissie Chau plays the drug-addicted Nana. Tony Jaa also makes a special appearance in the role of the shadowy assassin, Sadi, while Dave Bautista portrays the real heavy of the film, the rising underworld crime boss, Owen Davidson.
Following his defeat at the hands of Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man, Cheung Tin-chi has kept a low profile. Exiling himself from the world of martial arts, Cheung now runs a grocery store while spending more time with his young son, Fung. However, he finds himself pulled back into his old life after coming to the defense of Nana, a young woman fleeing the henchmen of local crime boss Tso Sai Kit, to whom her opium addiction has left her indebted. Tso retaliates by burning down Cheung’s grocery store, but his act of bravery is rewarded by a woman who had assisted in Nana’s rescue, Julia, who gets Cheung employment and housing at the nightclub owned by her brother, Chiu Kam Fu.
Sai Kit’s sister, Ngan Kwan, puts a stop to further violence by her brother’s gang, out of her desire to transition her criminal empire into a legitimate business. However, Sai Kit continues to escalate the drug war on the streets of the city, with help from Owen Davidson, a fearsome club owner rising up within the criminal underworld himself.
If anything were testimony to the impact the “Ip Man” franchise has had, it’s the series’ ability to launch a spin-off on a completely unrelated, albeit extremely popular, character. What’s also striking is how much Cheung Tin-chi’s story in “Master Z” manages to be distinct from his former adversary’s while also running parallel to it.
As we saw our hero experience in the original “Ip Man”, Cheung’s concern lies exclusively with protecting his son after falling on hard times, and largely leaving his life as a martial artist behind until it’s simply no longer possible to do so. What makes it different for Cheung are the feelings of shame and defeat that have left him where he’s at, in contrast to Ip Man finding himself pushing coal carts purely due to economic plight. Indeed, you get the distinct impression that Cheung would probably be far worse off if he didn’t have his young son to look after, and rather than setting Cheung up to make a bid for redemption, the film instead positions itself as more of a father-son bonding tale, and a pretty heart-warming one, at times.
The scenes of Cheung sharing a quiet dinner with Fung, along with the younger Cheung attempting to stand up to a gang of bullies scoffing at his father’s skills really end up being the glue that holds the film together amid its abundant fight sequences. And yes, let’s talk about those!
Not even five minutes elapse into “Master Z” when we get our first glimpse of Tony Jaa in action as the mysterious assassin Sadi, and while it’s brief, it frames his more thorough duel with Cheung later in the film. Tony’s role in the film isn’t that dissimilar to his appearance in “Furious 7”, that of a henchman largely present to engage in some flashy fights with the hero, only this time adopting a wardrobe that suggests he’s stepped out of “Billie Jean” or “Smooth Criminal”. Though Sadi isn’t given much to flesh out his character with, his rumble with Cheung is easily one of the film’s highlights, and a nice compliment to Tony’s previous battle with Max Zhang in “SPL 2”.
Michelle Yeoh is more of an observer for the bulk of the film, and as she’s been doing for the last few years, flexes her acting muscles as a former crime boss trying to go legit while battling a little sexism along the way (she’s certainly far less of a villain here than she was in “Crazy Rich Asians”). Nevertheless, she gets to show how much she’s kept up in a sword duel with Cheung while a massive battle with her brother’s axe-wielding gang unfolds around them.
In the role of Chiu, Shi Yan Neng is equal parts comic relief and Cheung’s partner in battle, tickling our collective funny bone in a light-hearted sparring match with Cheung one minute before throwing down the gauntlet with him in the aforementioned axe-battle the next. Yan Neng’s seriously got to be one of the fastest kickers alive, as we clearly see in Chiu’s hand-cuffed face-off with Owen Davidson late in the film. Speaking of whom, after his portrayal of Tong Po in “Kickboxer: Vengeance”, Dave Bautista’s really carving out a nice niche for himself as a martial arts movie Goliath, with his pro-wrestling skills put to just as great a use as Mike Tyson’s boxing was in “Ip Man 3”.
Cheung’s final confrontation with Davidson is the most rough and rowdy fight the film has to offer, and among the best to date for both Zhang and Bautista, our hero cool, calm and collected while his enemy goes at it like a bull in a china shop inside of his own nightclub. What makes it that much sweeter is the final, almost ninja-esque send-off Sadi gets that bookends the finale (that’ll make sense in context, I promise!)
Launching a spin-off from the “Ip Man” series was always going to be a tight-rope act, even with such a popular supporting character as Cheung Tin-chi. However, with excellent fight scenes and Yuen Woo-ping’s always superlative direction, “Master Z” earns its place within the “Ip Man” Legacy. Max Zhang is every bit as captivating in what is now his signature role as Donnie Yen was in his, and the film keeps things both simple and emotionally engaging with a story as relatable as a man just trying to be a good role model for his impressionable son. When you ponder the fact that we are being treated to “Ip Man 4” and an “Ip Man” spinoff in the same year, we aficionados of action have good reason to consider ourselves spoiled in 2019!
- Max Zhang also appeared in another movie about Ip Man outside of this series, 2013’s “The Grandmaster”, in the role of Ma San.
- Shi Yan Neng also appeared in the original “Ip Man”, in the role of the title character’s good friend, Lin.
- Max Zhang and Dave Bautista also appear together in the upcoming “Escape Plan: The Extractors”. Additionally, Bautista appears alongside Michelle Yeoh in 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2”.
- “I haven’t always made an honest living, I admit that. But take a good, hard look at yourselves. You are not so different. You lie, you cheat, you exploit. Are you willing to admit that? I didn’t think so.” – Tso Ngan Kwan (to a room of sceptical business partners.)
- “The steak would’ve been perfect by now, and you wasted it.” – Owen Davidson (after killing an enemy while preparing a steak as his last meal.)
- “I once thought that my martial arts could make me famous. I even used to make a living as a fighter for hire. But I really just wanted a simple life. I thought I could put martial arts behind me. But deep down, I know I never could. Those of us who fight never understood the true meaning of martial arts.” – Cheung Tin-chi (reflecting with Chiu on his loss to Ip Man.)
- “You challenged Ip Man. You sure know the true meaning of martial arts.” – Chiu (in reply.)