BIRTH OF THE DRAGON
2017, PG-13, 103 mins.
Philip Ng as Bruce Lee / Billy Magnussen as Steve McKee / Xia Yu as Wong Jack Man / Ron Yuan as Tony Yu / Darren E. Scott as Vince Miller / King Lau as King Lau / Yee Jee Tso as Winston Peng / Terry Chen as Frankie Chun
Directed by George Nolfi / Written by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson
The name Bruce Lee hardly requires any introduction by me, especially for those even modestly familiar with the man.
Without a doubt,
he remains to this day - even several decades after his death - to be one
of the most iconic Asian movie actors of his generation, if not one of the
most recognizable stars in the history of the medium.
It's surprising, in retrospect, that a definitive silver screen
biopic about his life and times has never fully seen the light of day.
Those expecting the somewhat misleadingly titled BIRTH OF THE
DRAGON to be a thorough portrait of the legendary Chinese martial artists
will be set up for supreme disappointment, mostly because (a) it
really only deals with one notable incident in Lee's life in the mid-1960s
while living in the U.S. and (b) he's mournfully reduced to a supporting
character in the larger story of one of his...white students.
BIRTH OF THE
DRAGON - from THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
director George Nolfi - is based on a fairly compelling aspect of Lee's
American life that, unfortunately, is told in a mostly uncompelling manner,
which concerns the then young martial artist challenging an supreme kung
fu master Wong Jack Man in 1965 in San Francisco.
According to Lee's widow Linda Lee Caldwell, her husband's teaching
of Chinese martial arts to Caucasian Americans made him a largely
unpopular figure to Chinese masters back home, which unavoidably led to
his confrontation with the visiting Wong.
For obvious reasons, aspects of this story have been embellished
for dramatic license, seeing as there were very few eye witnesses allowed
to see the dream street fight.
Yet, that's not the fundamental issue with BIRTH OF THE DRAGON; my
main misgiving about this noble minded and fairly ambitious film is that it
pulls an egregious
bait and switch with audiences.
Many going in - including myself - will expect an absorbing
Lee-centric narrative, but instead we're dealt up a woefully disinteresting
tale about one of his students trying to save the Chinese woman of his
dreams from the mob controlled slave trade in San Francisco.
The film begins
with a brief introduction to Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) fighting on
behalf of the Shaolin order back in China that ends with him nearly and
accidentally killing his opponent.
Realizing that he has done his adversary great wrong, Wong decides
to journey to San Francisco to penance for what he did by working a menial
job as a dish washer at his cousin's restaurant.
Not coincidentally, Wong just happens to come to the same city that
Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) has set up shop, several years before he achieved TV
and movie superstardom.
Lee makes ends meet by teaching his unique brand of martial arts to
seemingly anyone that comes through his doors, white and Chinese alike.
Lee is presented here as a man of limitless arrogance that believes
that his way is the right way; he wants to put kung fu on the map
This, rather predictably, contradicts Wong's beliefs about the
spiritual essence of kung fu in that it shouldn't be sold out for commercial
interests and to make one a celebrity.
It doesn't take
long for Lee to learn of Wong's appearance in San Francisco, which fosters
in him a deep yearning desire to publicly challenge the martial arts master to a
fight to prove which of them is the superior fighter.
Wong, being largely a pacifistic soul, wants to have nothing to do
with battling Lee, even though he vehemently disagrees with his teaching
methodology and overall smug demeanor.
Complicating things is one of Lee's promising students, Steve McKee
(Billy Magnussen), who respects Lee's tutelage, but nevertheless worships
Wong as a titan of martial arts as well.
Steve serves as a mediator between both parties as tensions
escalate and do unavoidably lead to their renowned scuffle, but in the
meantime he's become embroiled in a heated conflict of his own when he
falls head over heels for a gorgeous waitress that works under a
local Triad crime lord.
He desperately wants to free her and it certainly doesn't take a
fortune teller to predict that Lee and Wong will undoubtedly figure in to
assist him with his quest.
in BIRTH OF THE DRAGON are kind of thankless, especially by Xia and Ng,
who perhaps flesh out their characters with a bit more thoughtfulness than
what's really on the scripted page.
Xia in particular evokes a deeply principled man of serene
authority that holds the traditional principles of martial arts with the
He's a nice foil to Ng's Lee, who's shown in the film rather
uncompromisingly as a fame and power hungry egotist that's fully wrapped
up within the certainty of his own greatness.
Ng is not a physical dead ringer for Lee, but he certainly captures
his vocal cadences rather well, and Lee's story of his pre-fame time in
America is certainly worthy of exploration and interpretation.
The central quandary of Lee essentially flipping the bird to
ancient Chinese philosophies about who can and can't be taught martial
arts makes for a profoundly intriguing narrative.
BIRTH OF THE DRAGON deserves some merit for attempting to be more
than an action picture in its attempts to get into the mindsets of Wong
and Lee, which sets up their confrontation on levels beyond merely
Yet, why the hell
isn't BIRTH OF THE DRAGON more ostensibly focused on Lee and Wong?
There's an inordinate and regrettable amount of the film's already
brief running time focusing on Steve's love affair, which is never as
enthrallingly rendered as this film thinks it is.
It's not assisted by the fact that Steve is not a particularly well
realized character that's made worse by Magnussen's vanilla bland
When BIRTH OF THE DRAGON premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival it
received ample and well earned jeers from audiences and critics for the
overemphasis of the film dealing with a fictional white character and his
liberating of a Chinese character, which problematically built towards
accusations of white washing.
It's abundantly clear while watching BIRTH OF THE DRAGON that
the film has been severely edited down, but the central focus remains on
Steve's plight, which is beyond disconcerting.
The entirety of
BIRTH OF THE DRAGON should have been on its advertised brawl between Lee
and Wong, which is basically given second fiddle status overall here
(oddly, the film is advertised to be "based on a true story"
despite the fact that more than a lion's share of its story is total b.s.).
Ultimately, what we are left with is the heavily touted fight
itself, but the handling of these sequences by Nolfi lacks confidence and
Most of the battle is broken up into incongruent mixture of slow
motion, fast cutting, multiple frame rates, and all other sorts of kitchen
sink camera trickery.
It's not that this climatic sequence is dull or lacking in tension,
but it's aesthetic execution is all over the map.
And for a film that has a peaceful monk character that staunchly
refuses to resort to violence under any circumstances, BIRTH OF THE DRAGON
careens towards a climax that celebrates bone crunching violence a bit too
much for its own good; this final sequence resembles a video game beat 'em
more than it does feel like it's part of any normal plane of reality.
Lastly, Bruce Lee comes off here as so off-puttingly conceited that he almost becomes a de facto villain in his own movie. There's no doubt that Lee was a man of deep pride and conviction in his abilities, but in BIRTH OF A DRAGON he's like a bullying prima donna high school jock that needs someone to slap the vanity right out of him. That feels wrong and only serves to grossly undermine Lee's stature and importance in the history of action cinema and martial arts as a whole. It's quite shocking, in retrospect, how a film about Lee is so flatfooted and ill focused and never breathes considerable life into his everlasting stature in the industry. BIRTH OF THE DRAGON is not a awful film, but rather a pathetically misguided and careless one, and considering its subject matter it really does the man whose visage is on the poster a huge disservice.