Birth of the Dragon is not the Bruce Lee biopic you’ve been waiting for, as strong performances and martial arts action by Philip Ng and Xia Yu are wasted on a movie that had too little faith in the real story.
In 1965, martial arts icons Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man had a private match away from the public that became legendary, even though neither man agreed upon the outcome. Director George Nolfi’s Birth of the Dragon is very loosely inspired by that chapter of their history. But the movie itself is being marketed in a way that misrepresents the finished film. If we were to judge by the posters of Philip Ng as Lee, it would be easy to believe that this is a Bruce Lee biopic. That’s not what this is, and the movie treats Lee as if he is only the third most important character in his own story.
The good news is that Xia Yu is very compelling as Wong Jack Man, the Shaolin Master who has traveled to San Francisco on a quest for personal redemption. Man comes off as a more heroic and contemplative figure than Lee, and he easily wins sympathy. Man is very reluctantly drawn into a fight with Lee, and his agenda isn’t simply to defeat another master. Within this film, Man is battling for both the soul of Lee and for kung fu itself.
It was refreshing that the script allowed Lee to be dickish and arrogant in his dismissal towards Man while also privately afraid that a loss to his rival could bring down Lee’s rising ambitions. The conflict between Man and Lee had so much dramatic potential that it is extremely unfortunate that the movie drops that ball in several ways. For example, the film makes very few efforts to round out its portrayal of Lee and it doesn’t even bother to cast Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, who was a pivotal figure in Lee’s life and one of the few witnesses to his fight with Man.
If the entire movie was simply the build up to the duel, the duel itself, and its aftermath, then this could have been something special. Instead, both Lee and Man are often thrown to the sidelines in favor of Billy Magnussen’s Steve McKee, a student of Lee’s who befriends Man shortly after his arrival. In reality, there was no Steve McKee, and his presence completely unbalanced the rest of the film. McKee’s world is a stereotypical kung fu movie in which the leading dude successfully woos a young woman after only meeting her once or twice, before trying to save her from the underworld.
McKee’s perspective also clouds the story of Lee and Man since the audience witnesses both men through his eyes. Almost everything in the film revolves around McKee in some way, and it is completely ridiculous. His character only exists as a way to give a leading role to a white actor. Magnussen does the best he can with it, but this is schlock that the movie industry should have moved past by now. Rather than allowing the film to break out of a box office niche, McKee’s inclusion will ensure that Birth of the Dragon’s stay in theaters will be a short one.
Ng and Yu deserve a lot of credit for making the film work as much as it does, and the movie doesn’t disappoint when it finally gets around to showing the epic duel. There were some moments when Nolfi seemed to lose focus on the martial arts action by playing a few camera tricks. But by and large, this was the best part of the movie. However, it was far from the end, as the third act takes on a ludicrous plot straight out of the ‘70s. Some of the final fights are even fun to watch, but they also represent the point that the story completely breaks from reality. It’s all about McKee’s wants and needs, even while others do the fighting for him.
If there is a bright spot in this debacle, it would be if Birth of the Dragon propels Ng and Yu to greater stardom in the United States. Both men deserve a better showcase for their skills.