Courtesy of TIFF
George Nolfi’s fictionalized drama concerns the real-life martial arts bout between a young Bruce Lee and Shaolin master Wong Jack Man.
There eventually will be, if there aren’t already, more movies about Bruce Lee than ones in which the martial arts legend actually appeared. It’s understandable, considering Lee’s tragically brief career that ended just as he was reaching global superstardom. Unfortunately, George Nolfi’s fictionalized account of an infamous 1964 bout between Lee and Shaolin master Wong Jack Man is an inferior effort that fails to do justice to both its central character and provocative premise. Birth of the Dragon only serves to disprove the cinematic saying, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The film has apparently been recut and shortened since its premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, where it attracted criticism for its emphasis on a Caucasian character rather than the Asian leads. But while the current version thankfully makes it more of a supporting role, there’s still too much of him. And the melodramatic subplot in which he prominently figures has the dated feel of a 1930s-era Warner Bros. gangster film.
Said character, Steve (Billy Magnussen), is one of the students of the young, cocky Lee (Philip Ng), who’s teaching his unique style of kung fu in San Francisco. Steve becomes intrigued when he hears of the imminent arrival in the city of Wong, who apparently resents Lee introducing the Chinese martial art to Westerners. Taking a menial job as a dishwasher in a Chinatown restaurant, the reserved, dignified Wong bides his time until Lee, well aware of his rival’s presence, challenges him to a fight. Wong agrees, but on the stipulation that it not be held publicly and only in the presence of a dozen or so witnesses. That doesn’t stop the upcoming bout from becoming a local sensation, with Chinese gangsters betting heavily on the outcome.
Meanwhile, Steve becomes romantically involved with a beautiful waitress (Jingjing Qu) who’s being held as an indentured servant by Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing), the female crime figure who arranged for her passage to America. When the menacing Auntie gets wind of Steve snooping around her prized employee, she threatens to send her to work in one of her “houses.”
The infamous bout between Lee and Wong has become shrouded in mystery, although it supposedly led to the former radically readjusting his fighting style, an idea at which the film nods. But the pedestrian screenplay by Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele doesn’t do much to make the confrontation particularly interesting in narrative terms. As depicted here, the epic battle held in an abandoned warehouse is at least visually arresting with its dramatic contrast between the bare-chested Lee and the orange-robed Wong who, in true Shaolin style, seems to be dancing as much as fighting.
The fight scenes are indeed the film’s strongest element, even if at times they seem overly choreographed and slightly cheesy. But by the time Lee and Wong collaborate to take down the Chinese gangsters in an elaborate effort to rescue Steve’s damsel in distress, the silliness factor has long taken over. And Lee fans are bound to take issue with the characterization in which he’s mostly depicted as a cocky and vain emotional lightweight.
Ng, an accomplished martial artist and fight choreographer, fulfills the role’s physical demands with ease, and he effectively conveys Lee’s stylish swagger, if not, by definition, his singular magnetism. Yu Xia brings a subtly compelling charisma to his very different character, and the fact that he had no previous martial arts experience is a testament to the film’s skillfulness in making him look like a master.
Production companies: Groundswell Films, Kylin Pictures
Distributor: BH Tilt, WWE Studios
Cast: Philip Ng, Yu Xia, Billy Magnussen, Jin Xing, Jingjing Qu, Simon Yin
Director: George Nolfi
Screenwriters: Christopher Wilkinson, Stephen J. Rivele
Producers: Michael London, Janice Williams, Christopher Wilkinson, Stephen J. Rivele, James Hong Pang, Leo Shi Young
Executive producers: Helen Ye Zhong, Kelly Mullen, Daiv Nicksay
Director of photography: Amir Mokri
Production designer: David Brisbin
Editor: Joel Viertel
Costume designer: Aieisha Li
Composers: Reza Safinia, H. Scott Salinas
Casting: PoPing AuYeung, Joanna Colbert, Judy Lee
Rated PG-13, 89 minutes