A film review by Craig J. Koban September 5, 2017

BIRTH OF THE DRAGON jj

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.   

Ouch. 

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. 

 

 

Ouch. 

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 in America.  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. 

The performances 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 utmost seriousness.  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 physical.   

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 performance.  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 visual cohesion.  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. 

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