Review of “Birth of the Dragon”

Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) is teaching Kung Fu to students in his San Francisco studio. Lee is making his first film and is looking to star in a TV show. Shaolin master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) has come to San Francisco to bring balance back to his soul after injuring a Tai Chi master in what was supposed to be a non-contact demonstration back in his homeland of China. Lee’s students Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) and Vinnie Wei (Simon Yin) see in a Chinese-language newspaper about the coming of Wong Jack Man and tell Lee about it. Lee believes the Shaolin master is coming to challenge him to a fight as the Shaolin monks are unhappy he is teaching Kung Fu to Westerners. Meanwhile, McKee is making a delivery to a Chinese restaurant when he meets Xiulan Quan (Jingjing Qu) a waitress that is also a recent immigrant. Xiulan Quan is being forced to work at the restaurant by a mobster known as Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing) to pay off her debt for being transported to America. While she’s not supposed to speak to anyone outside the restaurant, McKee and Xiulan Quan begin a secret relationship. When Auntie Blossom finds out about the love affair she threatens to move Xiulan Quan from the restaurant to a brothel unless McKee gets Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man to fight so the Chinese mob can make money on the betting. If they fight, Auntie Blossom will release Xiulan Quan.

“Birth of the Dragon” is billed as being based on a true story. If by “based” you mean there were two martial artists named Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man that met for a fight then, yes, it is a true story. What this movie does with the characters and the story around them is as far from truth as one could get.

“Birth of the Dragon” is a cartoonish film. The story of the two martial artists, their alleged rivalry, the Chinese mob, the American student falling in love with the Chinese migrant, all of it is so overblown, so melodramatic it ceases to be a movie that can be taken seriously and becomes more like one of Bruce Lee’s early films. There is even a moment in the movie where Ng as Lee tastes his own blood when he is injured in a fight like the real Lee did in his film “The Big Boss.” Nothing in the film feels grounded or real and if you’re going to slap a “Based on a True Story” label on a piece of entertainment it should be at least plausibly believable.

Phillip Ng plays Bruce Lee as an arrogant and prideful person solely focused on becoming a successful entertainer via his Kung Fu skills. For much of the movie Bruce Lee is the “bad guy” of his own story. Perhaps that was an attempt to show Lee was changed by his encounter with Wong Jack Man and became more well-rounded and humble after. What we see is a spoiled and selfish person that despite his somewhat fatherly relationship with Steve McKee is rather unlikable. After his encounter with the Shaolin master, Lee isn’t changed that much and still seems full of himself. It isn’t a flattering portrayal of Bruce Lee and, based on the comments of those that knew him, he deserves better.

The rest of the cast isn’t exactly given the opportunity to shine with the material they are working with. The one exception might be Xia Yu as Wong Jack Man. The character is a man of discipline and honor. Injuring a Tai Chi master sends him on a spiritual journey of self-reflection. He humbles himself by washing dishes in a restaurant seeking redemption in humility. Xia Yu gives a measured and believable performance that is a center of calm in an otherwise chaotic story.

The fight scenes are for the most part masterfully choreographed. The beauty and flow of the movements by the martial artists is a wonder to behold. While some of the kicks and punches clearly come up short even if the potential recipient hadn’t moved it is still a ballet of action and is often mesmerizing. There are a couple of high falls and flips that are clearly aided by wires and those bring the overall quality of the fights down a notch but it is a minor quibble in what is the only highlight of an otherwise dreadful film.

“Birth of the Dragon” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, martial arts violence and language. As one might expect there are numerous fights. Some occur as part of an exhibition while others are supposed to be real conflicts (within the story). There is a minimum of blood. Thematic elements include slavery, coercion and threats of forced prostitution. Foul language is widely scattered and mild.

There are some people who claim to have seen the fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. It was pre-cellphone and portable video cameras so there is no visual record of the fight. Some claim Lee quickly won in as little as three minutes while others say the battle lasted more than 20 minutes with Wong Jack Man victorious. Who won or lost really isn’t important as the encounter is supposed to have changed Bruce Lee for the rest of his life. We’ll never know what really happened and “Birth of the Dragon” is so dramatized it proves to be useless in clarifying the matter. It also isn’t much of an entertainment as it comes off as silly and melodramatic. While the fights are mostly entertaining I feel confident in suggesting you can just give this movie a pass.

“Birth of the Dragon” gets one star out of five.

There are no new movies opening this week in wide release so I may have to hit up my local art house and see something weird. I’ll review something but I don’t know what.

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