Birth of the Dragon
Updated: Feb 4
Birth of the Dragon is a biopic “inspired by” the November 1964 fight between the legendary Bruce Lee (played in the movie by Phillip Wan-Lung Ng) and Shaolin Kung Fu master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu). In the film, Wong comes to San Francisco and is disappointed in Lee’s approach to Kung Fu. Lee wants to prove that his way is best and, eventually, they fight. However, the film is not really interested in exploring the philosophies of these two men. Since the fight itself only takes up about eight minutes of screen-time, that means something else has to occupy the other eighty. Unfortunately, that something is a giant waste of a potentially good story.
Instead of focusing on the two men involved in the story’s main conflict, the filmmakers chose to make Birth of the Dragon the story of a white guy (the fictitious Steve McKee, played by Billy Magnussen who played Kato Kaelin on last year’s excellent The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story) who acts as a go-between for Lee and Wong. The movie spends way too much time on his quest to free the woman he loves from the Chinese Triad. The film’s title implies that this fight, and the influence of Wong Jack Man, is what led Bruce Lee to create the style and persona that made Kung Fu popular in the United States and gave birth to his legend. I would love to see a movie that actually tells that story.
Birth of the Dragon tells us right at its opening that it has been "inspired by" the fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man, possibly as a way of excusing itself for not telling the story it allegedly sets out to tell. I would be okay with that if what they came up with was equally interesting. But it is really, really not.
Let us ignore for a second how problematic it is that they have chosen to background this story in exchange for a bland American’s forbidden romance. Let us instead focus on the movie’s representation of Lee and Wong. Admittedly, I know very little about Wong Jack Man. What I have read since seeing the film makes me think that the only part of the story the film got right is that he and Bruce Lee fought one time. But I am not reviewing Birth of the Dragon’s fidelity to the real event, I am only reviewing it as a film.
Here, Wong Jack Man is a quiet, respectful monk. If you have ever seen a Kung Fu movie before, you have seen this character. Xia Yu plays him believably and is by far the best thing in the movie. Bruce Lee, in contrast, is presented as an arrogant, egomaniacal, showboat. All he cares about is that he is the one bringing Kung Fu to the masses and anyone who disagrees with his methods is just jealous. He is a punk who needs to be brought down to Earth by the more learned Wong. Phillip Ng does the best he can with a pretty irritating character (he does capture Lee’s real-life swagger pretty darn well). It is like the screenwriters (Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, who have worked together on several biopics in the past) consulted The Big Book of Movie Clichés and decided to use all of them on this story.
Even after the bad first hour, I still had a faint hope that, at the very least, the fight itself would deliver. Unfortunately, director George Nolfi (directing his second feature film after the solid 2011 Matt Damon sci-fi movie The Adjustment Bureau) over-directs the scene so that it becomes something out of a bad Kung Fu movie instead of as a battle of wills and ideologies. The fight itself is less important than what Steve thinks about what is happening. His constant reaction shots grew very tiring very quickly. It reduces this epic battle to an afterthought. That issue is not helped by the fact that the payoff to the fight is far more about Steve than about either competitor.
Birth of the Dragon is a depressing letdown. It takes a fascinating story and dramatically dumbs it down for American audiences. Clearly, we would not be interested in the story of the battle between two brilliant Kung Fu masters unless we have a white American man as our entry point. Do yourself a favor and watch Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon instead. Despite being a fiction film that is a cross between a spy movie and a Kung Fu movie, it will tell you far more about Bruce Lee than this disaster will.
¾ out of 5
Phillip Wan-Lung Ng as Bruce Lee
Xia Yu as Wong Jack Man
Billy Magnussen as Steve McKee
Simon Yin as Vinnie Wei
Directed by George Nolfi
Screenplay by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson