The title of the Donnie Yen-less Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy suggests a martial arts equivalent of The Bourne Legacy (2012), the almost forgotten effort to extend the Jason Bourne series without star Matt Damon by focusing on another operative in a parallel storyline. However, the strategy here actually has more in common with the prison fight tournament series Undisputed, which took the defeated foe of its second entry (2006) and made his journey of redemption the focus of two further installments (2010/2016). The humbled fighter in Master Z is Wing Chun practitioner Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang), who memorably challenged Yen’s legendary hero in Ip Man 3 (2015), and has since settled into a quiet life as a grocery store proprietor in 1960s Hong Kong. As this is an Ip Man movie (albeit one without Ip Man), circumstances soon force Cheung out of obscurity.
When we catch-up with Cheung, he just wants to make a living and raise his young son Fung; his rejection of the pursuit of glory is signaled by re-appropriation of his workout dummy as a clothes hanger. However, when he rescues Julia (Yan Liu) and her opium-addicted friend Nana (Chrissie Chau) from thuggish drug dealer Kit (Kevin Cheng), he attracts unwanted attention. Infuriated by this public humiliation, Kit retaliates by burning down Cheng’s shop and house. Fortunately, the indebted Julia arranges for father-and-son to stay with her brother Fu (Shi Yanneng), the owner of a bar in a thriving nightlife district. Cheung also accepts a job from Fu and once again tries to keep his head down, but finds it impossible to turn a blind eye to the wicked narcotics trade that is rupturing Hong Kong.
As scripted by Edmond Wong and Chan Tai-lee, this spin-off is straightforward yet somehow also over-developed. There’s little moral shading in the characterization and the story of a vigilante fighter cleaning up the streets when it becomes apparent that the police are on the take is off-the-peg stuff. However, Wong and Chan have also mixed in Kevin’s sister Kwan (a splendidly imposing Michelle Yeoh), a Triad boss who wants to take their business legitimate, and Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista), a restaurateur and philanthropist whose success and considerable influence have not just been achieved by serving fine cuisine to the local elite. There’s also a glorified cameo from Tony Jaa as a mysterious assassin, which better services the marketing campaign than the actual movie.
If the plot can be best described as perfunctory, and even downright plodding at times, the action in Master Z sporadically delivers the goods. The standout extended sequence comes early in the proceedings with an escape from a burning apartment that features the best product placement for coca cola since the climax of Tsui Hark’s camp classic Double Team (1997) leading to a sprightly fight atop of Hong Kong’s iconic neon signs. It’s a splendidly staged wire work display that finds director (and famed choreographer) Yuen Woo-ping getting his mojo back after such wuxia misfires as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) and The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (2017). Much like the protagonist, Yuen is out to prove he’s learnt a lesson by returning to old-school martial arts entertainment, even if that entails the expected anti-colonialism rhetoric. Reteaming with the formidable Yeoh, he pulls off a dynamic, if anticlimactic, sword fight that will delight those disappointed that her matriarch in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) was restricted to verbal sparring.
As the now obligatory American element (Ip Man 3 ‘boasted’ an appearance from Mike Tyson), the hulking Bautista makes a decent fist of his role. Cooking is becoming an unexpected part of his screen persona – after preparing soup in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), he now serves up some juicy steaks – while his competitive background is accommodated with the use of his signature finisher the ‘Bautista Bomb’, here for hissable rather than crowd-pleasing effect. His big fight scene is a letdown, though, as the former wrestler unfortunately looks like a stop-motion figure when the action has been sped-up.
In addition to casting and choreography, a lot of care has evidently gone into this entry’s production values when it could have been treated as a mere stopgap quickie before the upcoming Ip Man 4 (2019). Raymond Chan’s handsome set design and Joyce Chan’s stylish costumes lend a swooning aesthetic that borders on art-house territory, especially in the nighttime scenes when Seppe Van Grieken and David Fu’s cinematography adds a noir texture. Yet within these painterly shadows lurks the presence of Ip Man to remind insatiable fans that, quality control aside, this is a sideshow to the main event.
Flashbacks to Ip Man 3 that feature Yen (credited here as producer) at key junctures point out that we’re following the story of a runner-up whose destiny has been shaped through an encounter with someone of infinitely greater significance. Zhang has a comparatively ‘bad boy’ image – it’s hard to image Yen undertaking his roles as a corrupt prison warden in SPL II: A Time for Consequences (2015) or a maverick cop in The Brink (2017) – which makes him a savvy choice for a spin-off. However, as much as Zhang shines when in motion, playing a doting father and general do-gooder results in a bland earnestness that prevents him, and the movie as a whole, from becoming more than a footnote in Ip Man’s expanding screen mythology.