OVERVIEW: 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.”
REVIEW: “This film was inspired by that fight,” breathe the opening credits of Birth of the Dragon. And yet rather than side decisively with either of the combatants, the screenplay by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (Ali, Nixon), takes an unnecessary third path, inventing a fictional student named Steve (Billy Magnussen, far too bland in this role) and having him watch as Lee and Wong trade blows.
Philip Ng does a fine job of playing Bruce Lee, a seemingly impossible task under the best of circumstances. Ng is certainly up for the physicality of the role (Ng was even a student of Wong Shun Leung at one point, one of Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun teachers), and he effectively channels the brash spirit of a pre-stardom Lee. The problem is that to illustrate the transformative effect these events had on him, the script makes Lee cartoonishly arrogant, and that’s the first warning sign. Xia Yu plays Wong Jack Man as Lee’s opposite number, humble, spiritual, and understated.
To get Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man to fight, and to get the movie to its requisite runtime (the actual, historical brawl was over in a matter of minutes), we’re introduced to two fictional students of Lee. One is a hapless young Chinese-American with a gambling problem, which serves the dual purpose of introducing Bruce to San Francisco’s Chinatown underworld and giving the film an early excuse to show off Philip Ng’s martial arts prowess.
When it finally gets where it’s going, Birth of the Dragon might deliver just enough action to satisfy at least a little bit of your martial arts movie craving. But despite genuinely compelling performances from Philip Ng and Xia Yu, the film struggles mightily in its middle act, and trying to get the audience to care even a little about any character not named Bruce Lee or Wong Jack Man is a losing battle. Throughout, we’re subjected to almost torturous expository dialogue and some flat performances as the movie tries to pad out an otherwise thin story.
It was ambitious to try and build a movie around a fight that, by the most credible accounts, only lasted a few minutes. But those minutes were so crucial to how Lee approached his craft that I suspect the filmmakers could have gotten away with telling a more nuanced, historically accurate story with the promise of an appropriately Hollywood-ized fight as the payoff at the end. Birth of the Dragon tries to have it both ways, and as a result pulls too many punches.
Final verdict of the film is Birth of the Dragon’s filmmakers lacked the faith in their movie to ever make it truly about Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. Allowing McKee to steal the focus of the story diminished the movie as a whole, which already had two perfectly cast leads in Ng and Yu.