There's more conflict and suspense in martial-arts period piece The Final Master's dialogue than there are in recent action films' best fight scenes. Blunt Mamet-esque witticisms and Bruce Lee–style philosophizing come together in lines like "The key to martial arts is not to duck" and set the pace for writer/director Xu Haofeng's thoroughly winning 1930s-set drama.
So while you may expect arrogant Wing-Chun expert Shi Chen (Liao Fan) to use his fists and broadside blades to attack Tianjin's martial-arts grandmasters, you probably won't expect to be challenged by a flurry of declarative statements, like "The rise and fall of an art depends on the life and death of an artist."
Even the expository dialogue is exchanged with style. Chen establishes his elaborate plan to get close to and then double-cross frenemies like sympathetic rival Shan'ao Zheng (Jin Shijie) and villainous ally Master Zou (Jiang Wenli) through tantalizingly fleet conversations that are just as thrilling as Chen's physical sparring.
That's not a knock against the film's impressive fight scenes. Panoramic wide-angle photography makes even the most claustrophobic side-street-set brawls look inviting, while crystal-clear extreme close-ups drive intimate parries and thrusts home.
Chen takes on a legion of military officers, dock-workers and armed grandmasters during a concluding battle that stands as the most well-rounded action filmmaking since Mad Max: Fury Road. Haofeng (The Sword Identity) may not be a household name, but The Final Master proves that he's the next big thing in martial-arts cinema.