Top-class fighting and fabulous production design overcome the stale plot of “Master Z: Ip Man Legacy,” a 1960s-set spin-off from the hit trilogy about the legendary Wing Chun master who trained Bruce Lee. With Max Zhang stepping capably into the spotlight as a former Ip Man challenger who wants to live peacefully but can’t avoid trouble, “Master Z” is professionally executed by veteran action director-choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (“Kill Bill”) and given a star-power lift by the casting of Michelle Yeoh and “Guardians of the Galaxy” team member Dave Bautista in villain roles. This expansion of the Ip Man Universe performed credibly in China and Hong Kong in early 2019 and has the required combination of grunt and gloss to repeat the feat when it opens April 12 on U.S. screens.
Since 2008, no fewer than seven Ip Man-related features have been released, including Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” (2013). Following hot on the heels of this film is “Ip Man 4,” the latest chapter in the Wilson Yip-directed, Donnie Yen-starring series that’s scheduled for domestic release in July. It will be interesting to see whether Ip Man fatigue will set in or if the series will enjoy even greater international success with a story rumored to feature Bruce Lee’s character more prominently than previous installments have.
In the meantime, writers Edmond Wong and Chan Tai-lee pick up where their “Ip Man 3” screenplay left off, introducing Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang) as a formidable Wing Chun exponent who challenged Ip Man for top-dog status and lost out in a duel staged behind closed doors. Tired of being a hired heavy for a scuzzy crook (Yuen Wah), Cheung announces he’s finished with fighting and just wants to open a general store and be a good dad to bright-eyed son Fung (Henry Zhang). As with “Ip Man 3,” there’s virtually no information about Cheung’s professional past or personal history, such as how he became a single parent.
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Despite his skimpily defined character, Zhang hits the mark as a likable guy who’s trying to put violence behind him and lay inner demons to rest. Naturally, that can only be a temporary situation, and it’s not long before Cheung comes to the rescue of opium-addicted bar girl Nana (Chrissie Chau) and her bestie Linda (Liu Wan, delightful). Cheung’s noble action brings him into conflict with Kit (Kevin Cheng), a drug-dealing dirtbag whose cool and calm sister, Kwan (Yeoh), heads up the Cheung Lok triad and wants to go legit.
The film’s design and action elements move into overdrive after Kit torches Cheung’s shop and Linda offers shelter to Cheung and Fung at Golden Bar, a glitzy hot spot run by her honest brother, Fu (Nasson). Production designers Raymond Chan and Ko Cheuk-lam construct a gloriously fake replica of Wan Chai’s famous Bar Street district for Cheung and new buddy Fu to face down Kit and his endless supply of goons. Highlights of the fists-and-feet engagements include Cheung kicking butt while bouncing between neon signs with the agility of Spider-Man. Wire work is obvious much of the time but it hardly diminishes the impact. The absolute standout is a duel at Cheung Lok headquarters involving Cheung, Fu, Kit, and a saber-wielding Kwan. The outcome of this encounter is one of the few moments in which action and emotion coalesce explosively.
Yeoh is dynamite as the immaculately coiffed boss whose supreme control of the organization and genuine desire to end its criminal activities makes Kwan charismatic, intriguingly sympathetic, and deserving of her own spin-off feature. Yeoh certainly fares better than Bautista, who plays Owen Davidson, a restaurateur and president of the philanthropic Sino-Western Merchant Assn. who’s in cahoots with Kit and has the smarmy British colonial police chief (Brian Thomas Burrell) in his pocket. Fight-wise, Bautista delivers the goods but his thinly sketched bad guy never amounts to much more than a stock-standard nasty gweilo. Least served of the name cast is Thai martial arts king Tony Jaa (“Ong Bak”), who’s set up early as a silent, black-clad assassin only to drift out of the picture for long stretches and pop back up without making much of an impression.
While there’s nary a surprise in the formulaic plot, and the philosophical complexities underpinning Wing Chun hardly rate a mention, “Legacy” never stops impressing visually. Costume designer Joyce Chan goes wild creating pop-art-inspired pant suits, pastel twinsets, and slinky ski pants for female cast members, while outfitting the men in brightly hued blazers and wonderfully garish polyester open-neck shirts. One can only imagine how much hairspray was required to keep the dazzling parade of beehive, bouffant, and bubble hairdos in place. These craft contributions combine marvelously to invoke the spirit of a classy Shaw Brothers production or a prestige Cathay Films presentation of the day.
The film’s eye-catching decors and exciting action are beautifully captured in the lush images of co-cinematographers Seppe Van Grieken and David Fu. The only bum note is a score that lays on strings and piano that are frequently far too schmaltzy even for this kind of film. All other technical aspects are bang-on.