The name Yuen Woo Ping is synonymous with quality action. As an actor, he’s been working since 1962; as a stunt coordinator or fighting instructor, since 1971; and he began directing in 1978. His hands have touched films like Jackie Chan’s 1978 Drunken Master, Jet Li’s 1991 Once Upon A Time in China, Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s 1999 The Matrix, and Quentin Tarantino’s 2004 release Kill Bill: Vol. 2, just to name a few. If Woo Ping is associated with a project, there is a certain expectation of quality action and coordination. His latest work, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, may be an extension of the Wilson Yip-directed Ip Man films starring Donnie Yen (Hero), however, it radiates all the qualities of a Woo Ping production by incorporating entertaining wire work, masterful displays of physical ability, and beautiful set pieces which keep the whole picture focused on the interpersonal drama wherein incredible feats of action are merely a punctuation mark.
Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang) and his son Fung (Henry Zhang) moved to Hong Kong after Tin Chi lost a private fight with Ip Man (Yen). In order to take care of his son and supplement the grocery store he runs, Tin Chi engages in some underground fighting and takes enforcement jobs under explicit guidelines. . However, when Tin Chi intercedes in an altercation between sisters Julia and Nana (Liu Yan and Chrissie Chau) and opium den boss Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng), Tin Chi finds himself at the center of a war for control of Hong Kong’s heroin distribution. Believing himself to be both a man of honor and a man uninterested in fighting, Tin Chi grapples with proper action as he tries to protect his son from the unintended consequences of his choices.
What may throw some audiences off a bit is that the trailers for Master Z imply a film built on awe-inducing stunt sequences when it is far more of a character-driven crime drama which features more than one jaw-dropping fight. This is unsurprising as the Ip Man films from which Master Z is born, centered on legendary Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man, who is depicted as a warrior who only fought as necessary and didn’t go looking for fights to engage in. Building off of this, what makes Master Z so incredibly interesting is how well the screenplay by Edmond Wong and Chan Tai Lee presents Tin Chi struggling to walk that path. The opening credits establish Tin Chi as a man who views himself as a failure, but also as a man of pride, who created his own school of fighting style, Wing Chun, as a means of raising himself up in standing. So when the audience observes Tin Chi trying to quit working for a veritable hitman handler and, later, a quick line of dialogue insinuates that he also took part in underground fighting, there’s a clear indication that the desire to fight courses through him, but his direction is aimless. This aspect, Tin Chi’s reluctance to embrace his whole self, is the thematic core of Master Z, which slowly unfolds over its 108-minute runtime. Wonderfully, even when it seems as though Wong and Tai Lee are trying to cram too many characters into the story, there’s never a sense of slowing down as each one possess great significance to the total outcome.
Though comparisons to the original Ip Man series are understandable, especially considering Ip Man 3 introduces Tin Chi and also features a known athlete-turned-actor in a villain role. For Ip Man 3, it was Mike Tyson, and for Master Z, it’s the always impressive Dave Bautista. He’s a talent who’s turned himself from WWE Superstar to a consummate character actor. Here, his role is more than direct adversary, allowing Bautista’s restaurant owner Davidson to indulge his various shades of individuality. The character is presented as extremely multifaceted and Bautista owns each aspect perfectly, whether it’s as a gentle giant or as a monster of violence. Bautista is engaging in every scene he takes part in. Considering the company he keeps in Master Z, that’s saying something. But again, hat tip to Woo Ping who recognizes the versatility of Bautista’s natural ability, finding a way to make the inclusion of cuffed hands into an audible gasp-inducing tug-of-war in a brief fight sequence that establishes Davidson’s physical prowess.
Chances are, if you’re coming to a film like Master Z, it’s because you want to see actors like Zhang and Bautista throw down, not the engrossing story which sets up the emotional pay-off of those sequences. If that’s you, then you’re in for a treat. Granted, an early fight sequence between Tin Chi and Kit’s gang liberally applies wires in an attempt to make the aerobatics seem impressive as the characters jump from one neon-lit bar sign to another. This one sequence doesn’t mesh with the previously more natural-appearing wire fight sequences displayed. Delightfully, as strange as that sequence appears, this is not a fair representation of the film as a whole. As seen in the trailer, when Michelle Yeoh’s Miss Kwan visits Tin Chi, their initial exchange over a glass of liquor not only illustrates their mutual affinity for martial arts, but serves as a beautiful interaction between the actors as they fluidly use their hands and forearms to gently push the glass back and forth to each other. Later, as tensions in the story rises, Tin Chi and new friend Fu (Naason, but also goes by Xing Yu) challenge a local crime gang and the two fighters absolutely decimate the crew, leading toward a dual duel that is somehow not the pinnacle of the film. A word of caution: much like the recently released Triple Threat promised intense action from its leads, but tended toward more story, Master Z is the same. However, where Triple Threat largely underwhelmed with the way it utilized the talents of leads Tony Jaa, Tiger Chen, and Iko Uwais, there is no concern for that here. In fact, the only one who might be considered as being short-changed at all is Jaa, who appears as an unnamed fighter (credits list him as “Tony”) Tin Chi used to work with and who only briefly appears in Master Z. However, the weight of each appearance is significant and will leave audiences with a smile.
Though a part of the Ip Man cinematic universe, Master Z stands on its own as a feature, creating a new world to explore and characters to meet. Max Zhang’s Tin Chi doesn’t possess the gravitas of Yen’s Ip, but he doesn’t have to. These are two vastly different men on two different journeys of self. In this regard, seeing Ip Man 3 for Tin Chi’s introduction is unnecessary to understand his needs and desires in Master Z, resulting in a film which acknowledges the world it occurs within, but doesn’t lean on it to tell its story. As such, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is a film worthy of its own mention, separate from the film series which created it, offering compelling drama and stunning action sequences which only solidify the martial art reputations of the actors involved. But then, what else would you expect from a Yuen Woo Ping film?
In theaters April 12th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.