The popular line of Ip Man martial arts films starring Donnie Yen gets is first official spinoff in Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy. Veteran filmmaker Yuen Woo-ping, the fight choreographer of Ip Man 3 and a key innovator in kung fu cinema, holds the directing reins this time around, going big on bruising fights and easy entertainment in a tale set in 1960s Hong Kong.
Taking the spotlight is Cheung Tin-chi (Max Zhang), who in the past found fame by daring wing chun grandmaster Ip Man to a closed-door duel. After being dealt a humbling in that fight, Cheung is looking for a quiet life. His hothead days are well behind him, and he has shrugged off martial arts teaching and freelance hit jobs too. Now the aim is simply to run a small grocery store and be a dutiful father.
The problem is that trouble has a way of finding him. When he comes across local thugs led by Tso Sai-kit (Kevin Cheng) attacking two women, songstress Julia (Liu Yan) and her junkie pal Nana (Chrissie Chau), Cheung intervenes and finds himself swept into a major gangland struggle. Tso is at odds with his sister (Michelle Yeoh), who’s heading the powerful Cheung Lok Group and wants it to ditch its mob operations and become all-legit within three years. An especially nasty piece of work, Tso is keen not only to keep up current shady business like running an opium den, but to move into the more lucrative heroin trade as well. And he’s got corrupt cops on his side.
When Tso firebombs Cheung’s shop in revenge for the earlier thrashing, Cheung beats up gang members yet again and, with son in tow, moves into safer surrounds with Julia and Nana. As he takes up work in a bar run by Julia’s brother, good-natured tough guy Fu (Xing Yu), the heroin menace starts to be felt in the district and once more Cheung must spring into action.
It doesn’t take long for Yuen Woo-ping and his brother Yuen Shun-yi, serving as action director, to bring out star Max Zhang’s prowess in Master Z, and the battles escalate with strong opponents and a mix of combat styles. Zhang, a former wushu athlete who entered film as a stuntman, shows his versatility with his fists and kicks and speedy acrobatics, zipping from mass brawls to fun rooftop sparring to all-out rage. Thai action ace Tony Jaa boosts star power in a couple of skirmishes, heavy on elaborate moves and even neat symmetry, while Michelle Yeoh is similarly no slouch when she leaps into flashy swordplay and more. US actor and former wrestler Dave Bautista is also on hand for rough-and-tumble action that contrasts his brawny fighting style with more quick-footed martial arts.
Not everything is so hot in Master Z. The plot is merely adequate for hanging a set of fights on; Max Zhang, though highly capable on the action front, isn’t especially charismatic; and the main baddie is screamingly obvious from the first shot. Yet for those simply seeking a thrilling hit of kung fu cinema, Yuen Woo-ping delivers the goods handily. And it’s especially a treat on the big screen, with Yuen staging the clashes with creative use of large and fancy studio sets. Martial arts cinema isn’t the staple of Hong Kong cinema it once was, but Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy shows its traditions are alive and kicking.