Originally, the whole point of the various Ip Man movies was to be one degree removed from Bruce Lee. Now, the franchise is spinning off characters with only brief associations with Lee’s great Wing Chun master. Nevertheless, the action is worthy of a place in the Ip Man world. We only see producer Donnie Yen in brief, stylized flashbacks, but some of the brightest motion picture martial artists face off during Yuen Woo-ping’s Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, which opens this Friday in New York.
Cheung Tin-chi fought hard against Master Ip Man, but that made it all the more humbling when he lost his challenge. Resolving to lead a quiet life, Cheung tries to become a modest shopkeeper in Hong Kong. Yet, despite his retirement, Cheung is pulled back into the martial arts life when he saves two young women, Julia and Nana, from a drug-dealing gang led by Tso Sai Kit—at least he likes to fancy himself the leader. The truth is, the Tso syndicate is overseen by his older sister, Tso Ngan-kwan, who intends to take the organization completely legit. She is therefore not amused when her brother tries to kill Cheung and his young son as payback.
Having been burned out of their shop and flat, Cheung finds work and digs with Julia’s brother, Fu, a bar-owner catering to western customers. He knows a fair amount of martial arts too, which will make him a worthy partner for the younger Tso starts pushing hard stuff like heroin in the bar district. Unfortunately, there is an even worse offender than Tso—who also happens to be much more dangerous.
The storyline of Master Z could have been lifted from any middling Golden Harvest release from the 1970s. It almost looks like Yuen was pulling scenes out of a hat at random. Yet, that hardly matters, because of the fight scenes and the star power. Star-in-the-making Max Zhang really comes into his own as Cheung. He is quiet, but he has real presence, not unlike Yen himself. This time around, he gets to face-off versus some of the best in the business, including human tree-trunk Dave Bautista, Tony Jaa (who is almost unrecognizable as the stealthy assassin), and the legendary Michelle Yeoh, who is commandingly regal as Tso Ngan-kwan. Plus, Xing Yu (the former Shaolin monk) does some of his best work yet as the rakish but deeply principled Fu. Frankly, he shows just as much breakout star potential as Zhang.
To summarize the important points: Zhang takes on Yeoh, Bautista, and Jaa—and also teams up with Xing Yu against dozens of thugs. The action is terrific, but the father-son story also has some heart (although not as much as Ip Man’s relationships with his wife and son). It also confirms Yeoh is something like the Hong Kong female version of Clint Eastwood, because her star wattage just continues to grow in brightness over time. Very highly recommended for all martial arts fans, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy opens this Friday (4/12) in New York, at the AMC Empire.