A scan of the box office leaders last year reveals that almost nobody was kung fu fighting.
In fact, it was a little bit frightening.
Martial arts constitute a basic food group for action fans, and Hollywood has more or less lost interest, leaving malnourished a group of folks who have been starved for entertainment basically since The Raid: Redemption.
Aficionados could import the hard stuff from Hong Kong — for instance, the Ip Man series featuring (most recently) Donnie Yen and choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping (Kill Bill, The Matrix) but even that appeared to peter out when Donnie Yen moved on to other things.
Well when one door closes, another gets kicked open, and Yen’s departure was an opportunity for Max Zhang, who played Yen’s final opponent in last Ip Man movie, and is repurposed as a good guy in Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy.
He plays Cheung Tin-chi, a one-time martial arts champion (and underworld enforcer), now a single dad, who decides to walk away from the fighting life and open a grocery store in Hong Kong, circa the 1960s, when the city was under British rule. He aims to live a peaceful life, but when he intercedes in a beef between a singer (Liu Yan) and a crazy gangster (Kevin Cheng), he comes embroiled in complex maze of local gangs, corrupt cops.
That makes Ip Man sound more grave than it actually is. The movie is often light in tone and decidedly weird — shot obviously on studio lots (the same three cars keep moving up and down the “streets”), with dazzling colors (enjoyably garish use of red and yellow) and costumes that make the whole thing play like a musical.
Martial arts provide the choreographed (Yuen Woo-ping also directs here) dance element — Zhang is quite an acrobat, and a sequence of him fighting gangsters while scaling the neon signs of the city’s saloon district is a keeper.
Later he gets in a sword fight with Michelle Yeoh, playing a Corleone-ish gang leader who wants to go legitimate, only to be undermined by her no-good brother (the aforementioned Cheng), who’s like a combination of Fredo and Sonny, exhibiting the worst characteristics of both.
Yeoh’s fantastic as usual, making an impressive series of moves while not disturbing a single hair on her period Joey Heatherton hairdo. Tony Jaa makes a cameo and Dave Bautista, on loan from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has a decent-sized role small as a restaurateur who also gets a chance to throw a punch or two, and what a pleasure it is to see him in action sequences without CGI interference.
Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy. Directed by Yeun Woo-ping. With Max Zhang, Liu Yan, Michelle Yeoh, Kevin Cheng, Tony Jaa and Dave Bautista. Distributed by Well Go USA.
Running time: 1 hour, 17 mins.
Parents’ guide: Not rated.