'Birth of the Dragon'
There’s a pretty good Bruce Lee bio-pic already out there called ‘Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story’, but apparently that wasn’t enough for the good people at WWE Studios, who decided that another one was necessary based on an obscure fight held by Lee shortly before stardom. ‘Birth of the Dragon’ is essentially a kung-fu movie that happens to feature a character named Bruce Lee, and if that’s enough to get you into a movie theater then your dreams just came true.
The story takes place in 1960s San Francisco. Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) has a popular kung-fu school and is gradually working his way into the film industry. He’s been teaching the fighting style he developed to a number of local students, including a rugged white American Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen). Steve adores the culture and is excited when he hears rumors that Shaolin kung-fu master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) is coming to town. Steve hopes that Wong will teach him traditional Shaolin kung-fu, while Lee wonders if Wong has come to America to fight the budding superstar for teaching ancient secrets to whites across the globe. That creates something of an awkward three-way tension. To make things worse, Steve also falls in love and gets caught up in the local triad human trafficking trade. In other words, there will be fighting. Lots of fighting.
Weirdly enough, ‘Birth of the Dragon’ comes from director George Nolfi who previously helmed ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ as well as providing scripts for ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ and ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’. I guess the guy was secretly a fan of schlocky kung-fu movies, but he also wants to make a film with plot and purpose. That’s both a blessing and a curse. ‘Birth of the Dragon’ has ambition, hoping to capture the crime filled streets of ’60s San Francisco Chinatown, the majesty of classical kung-fu versus Bruce Lee’s more aggressive style, provide some insight into that vastly important international superstar, and also deliver a love story about a boring blonde guy named Steve who barely fits into any of this. Steve (and Billy Magnussen’s) performance are easily the worst part of the movie. He’s a grating writing device designed to link themes, settings and characters together without any personality, and Magnussen plays him like a mannequin with movement. Apparently, film festival cuts of the movie focused even more on him. Thankfully that changed, because otherwise ‘Birth of the Dragon’ would be a disaster rather than a disappointment.
The good news is that while Nolfi can’t quite fit all of the pieces of the overambitious script together, he can direct a hell out of a fight scene. The fights in the film, especially towards the climax, are meticulously choreographed and beautifully shot. Wire-assisted jumps seem odd in a movie that claims to be a true story, but at least it all looks cool, right?
Philip Ng is actually pretty good as Bruce Lee, nailing the star’s physicality, voice and attitude throughout. He’s good enough that you wish the movie could be entirely about Bruce Lee, but it’s too late to change that great mistake. Yu Xia is also strong in a far more stoic role as the master Wong. Together, they do a gorgeous kung-fu dance and a few other OK fight scenes against the cardboard characters. Meh, it’s fine.
‘Birth of the Dragon’ is a decent C or D level kung-fu movie. Unfortunately, the mere fact that it’s about Bruce Lee will make audiences expect more that they won’t get. The film has little insight into Lee’s life that isn’t handled vastly better elsewhere, and any attempt at delving into the dark side of 1960s San Francisco Chinatown is undone by the embarrassingly stereotyped and underdeveloped villains, who feel like they’re in a different, trashier fight flick. Still, Ng delivers an amusing take on the iconic Bruce Lee and the movie has some great fight scenes when they finally arrive. It’s not a total disaster. In fact, this is likely one of the finest films ever made under the WWE banner. That’s just not much of a compliment, is it?