Not all unasked for spinoffs are bad, but they do seem difficult to do well. How much does a spinoff arbitrarily adhere to the tone of its predecessors? How much does it do its own thing? What if its own thing sucks? Everyone makes fun of Bourne Legacy, but that's a fine action film except when it tries to intersect with the Bourne world. But without those intersections, what’s the point of it at all?
Master Z: IP Man Legacy manages to defeat this conundrum with its own self confidence. Lacking Donnie Yen and following the events of an IP Man 3 character, the film manages to honor the original series’ setting and themes while delivering a completely different type of martial arts film that is wholly entertaining all by itself.
Facing defeat after his private match with IP Man in IP Man 3, Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang) gives up martial arts and tries to live a quiet life as a shopkeeper with his young and super adorable son. He runs afoul of local gangsters and the plot pretty much takes off from there. The whole thing gets complicated enough to include three or four (or five!) villains depending on how you count them, and great commentary on Western influence in Hong Kong, but at its core, this is just about a guy who got messed with by thugs one day and now has to make things right.
Right away, things are more broad than in Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s films. Master Z is happy to trade the serene dignity of those for just straight up fun. There are more fights, the villains are much more diabolical, and the film brims with surprisingly great humor. These would all likely bring shame to the series, but their winning execution sees it succeed with the different formula instead. It feels like IP Man’s Hong Kong, just in a completely different neighborhood.
Zhang offers a different kind of hero. He’s no Donnie Yen, of course, but his relationship with his son, combined with his relative eagerness to fight makes him likable enough. Plus, he’s bolstered by an amazing cast including Michelle Yeoh, Dave Bautista, Tony Jaa and even the great Xing Yu.
The film suffers most the more it tries to recreate past magic. The inclusion of Bautista as a gigantic Westerner whose fighting style might be fun to match against Wing Chun is a bit too similar to the incredible Mike Tyson fight in IP Man 3, though Bautista is a much better actor than Tyson and his character’s penchant for cooking steaks is a curious hoot. But his fight scenes just aren’t as good.
This is rarely an issue however. For most of Master Z, we zing from one martial arts scene to the next, many of which have their own clear identity - from a Wuxia battle high among neon shop signs to an elegant (and funny) contest between Yeoh and Zhang’s right hands and a glass of whiskey. There’s always something fun about to happen in Master Z: IP Man Legacy and with this cast and under the direction of the legendary Woo-Ping Yeun, you know it’s all going to be worth your time, even if it is a spinoff.