The “legacy” in the title of Master Z: Ip Man Legacy clues you in that the movie actually has little to do with Ip Man, the Wing Chun master who has been the subject of numerous movies over the years, especially during the last decade. And that’s OK, because the real legacy being celebrated is that of director Yuen Woo-ping, the 74-year-old wuxia wizard who, at the helm and as choreographer, was responsible for a slew of classic features from the ’70s through the ’90s before being discovered by Hollywood around the turn of the millennium. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is a glorious homage to those earlier films, from its wirework-enhanced fight scenes to its lush colors to its subplot involving evil British colonialism—right down to the stiff acting by the Caucasian supporting players.
Max Zhang (a.k.a. Zhang Jin) stars as Cheung Tin-chi, last seen succumbing to Ip Man’s “one-inch punch” at the climax of Ip Man 3 (the third in Wilson Yip’s trilogy with Donnie Yen in the title role). Sometime later, in the ’60s, Tin-chi gives up a stint as a gun (or fists) for hire and opts for a simple life running a grocery store and taking care of his little son Fung. But since trouble has a way of catching up with reluctant heroes, he gets on the bad side of hotheaded drug dealer Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng) while trying to defend opium addict Nana (Chrissie Chau) and her friend Julia (Liu Yan). Their escalating rivalry leaves Tin-chi homeless, so Julia offers him and Fung a place to say at the home of her brother Fu (Naason), and the latter gives Tin-chi a job at the Gold Bar he runs. This brings Tin-chi into contact with triad boss Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh), Kit’s sister, whose desire to go into legitimate business doesn’t sit well with Kit.
Gold Bar is one of a slew of upscale watering holes on a street festooned with their lavish neon signs, an eye-catchingly colorful environment that, like all else here, is captured in lustrous cinematography by Seppe Van Grieken and David Fu. From the opening drums of Day Tai’s score, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy bathes fans of the form in a glow of nostalgia for the HK film favorites by Yuen and his contemporaries. Which is not to say that the movie is targeted toward homage; the drama is played earnestly without winking and the many fights have real stakes throughout. Yuen and action choreographer Yuen Shun-yi’s setpieces range from down-and-dirty street brawls to more elaborate contests (most notably a double duel in an office and one in which the combatants leap across those bar signs). The director also finds creative ways to work his actors’ physical skills into non-violent moments; a pas de deux with a whiskey glass between Tin-chi and Kwan is worth all of the generic boilerplate surrounding the fisticuffs in something like Triple Threat.
Yeoh, one of cinema’s great action heroines from the likes of Police Story 3: Supercop, The Heroic Trio and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon who found a new audience with Crazy Rich Asians, has Master Z’s most compelling role. Kwan, anxious to move beyond the family syndicate she has inherited, provides dramatic grounding amidst the gravity-defying battles, and has an affecting scene in which her ambitions are rejected by the local business association. And while she’s exercising her dramatic chops, seeing her take the rousing opportunity to effortlessly demonstrate that she can still kick major ass in her 50s is worth the price of admission. As the rather generically named villain Owen Davidson, a restaurateur whose steak house covers for his heroin trade, Dave Bautista is less taxed as an actor but certainly delivers on the physical side, while Tony Jaa makes a strong impression in what amounts to a cameo as a mysterious assassin.
Zhang, who began his career as a stunt double in Crouching Tiger (for Zhang Ziyi!), won Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for The Grandmaster and has small parts in Pacific Rim: Uprising and the forthcoming Escape Plan: The Extractors, steps into this lead role with charisma to match his Wing Chun skills. Evidently the Z in the title is meant to refer to its star rather than any of the characters, and the film intended to announce him as a new martial-arts hero. As such, it was a canny move to pair this up-and-comer with the experienced veteran Yuen, and this spinoff feature deserves to spawn a series of its own, hopefully continuing that collaboration.