In a tale told a multitude of times before, Birth of the Dragon looks at the early days of Bruce Lee’s rise to true superstardom. With glitzy Hollywood pictures just around the corner, 1965 saw Lee on the cusp of butting artistic heads with the masterful Wong Jack Man. Here, we see yet another look at one of the most legendary confrontations in the martial arts game.
As Lee, we have Philip Ng, while Xia Yu takes on the role of Wong Jack Man. Throw in a subplot of Lee’s student Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) chasing forbidden love, and you have an added layer that attempts to make this more than just your usual run-of-the-mill Bruce Lee biopic effort. Unfortunately, the McKee character is a bland one at best, feeling included merely to try and add something different.
In terms of the Bruce Lee that we see here, it’s a cocksure, almost arrogant version of the icon. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, for Ng manages to capture the bold and headstrong Lee that had Hollywood bigwigs knocking down his door as he looked to implement his own style of kung fu – Wing Chun – to the world. On the flipside, Wong Jack Man is a traditionalist who is unsure on Lee’s approach and whose difference of philosophy eventually leads to a behind-closed-doors fight between the two that has ties to the gangland scene of the day and the women who were sold as objects around that time.
Performance-wise, Ng and Yu are actually pretty darn good as Lee and Man, respectively. Unfortunately, they’re let down by a film that is nothing if not vanilla as it staggers through familiar tropes and adds absolutely nothing to a story that has already been heard by the masses at several points over the decades. Sadly for Billy Magnussen, his McKee character is often one of the big issues dragging down the pace of the action, feeling like an unneeded and unwanted addition to the story of Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. As for the action itself, Ng and Yu clearly know how to handle themselves and are more than adequate at dealing with the task at hand, but the set pieces and fight scenes dotted throughout the film often veer towards laughable.
The fact that Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon was quick to distance herself from the movie due to how it seems to completely fumble the beliefs and ideology of her iconic father should likely speak volumes to longtime fans of Lee. In fact, not only does Birth of the Dragon struggle to correctly handle its main character, Lee is also often positioned as a mere supporting character in an overplayed, overdone romance between McKee and Jingjing Qu's Xiulan, a restaurant worker forbidden from interacting with 'outsiders'. Added to this, elements of the ‘based on true events’ tale are completely fabricated in what seems like a desperate attempt to pad out Birth of the Dragon’s runtime. And sadly, this is a film that feels like an overstretched chore despite clocking in at the relatively short runtime of just under 90 minutes.
BIRTH OF THE DRAGON / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: GEORGE NOLFI / SCREENPLAY: STEPHEN J. RIVELE, CHRISTOPHER WILKINSON / STARRING: PHILIP NG, XIA YU, JIN XING, BILLY MAGNUSSEN, JINGJING QU / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 6 out of 10