Hot Take: I’m conflicted. Most of me thinks Birth of the Dragon wasn’t very good but damn if part of me didn’t thoroughly enjoy it and would probably watch it again.
I’m not sure what to make of Birth of the Dragon. First of all, I’m not entirely sure it was a Bruce Lee biopic since it is not entirely accurate. It’s more an “inspired by true events” re-imagining of Lee’s life which, I guess, can technically still be a biopic. Second, while I saw many flaws in the storyline, plot and performances, I couldn’t help but find myself thoroughly sucked into the tale and chomping at the bit during not one but two very entertaining martial arts sequences. Again, this isn’t an endorsement of quality but definitely one of entertainment, especially if you happen to enjoy older ’70s martial arts films starring the movie’s subject.
Based on an event that happened prior to Bruce Lee’s fame, an up-and-coming Lee (Phillip Ng) teaches his brand of martial arts to any willing to learn. When he hears of the arrival of a Shaolin monk from China — Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) — who is also a kung fun master, Lee wants to fight him to prove that he is better than anyone in the kung fu world. Through his student Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen), Lee arranges a meeting with Man at a martial arts exhibition and attempts to goad Man into fighting him which doesn’t work. When McKee can free his love interest, an innocent Chinese woman named Xiulan (Jingjing Qu) from the servitude of Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing) by arranging a fight between Lee and Man, he convinces Man to do it to save Xiulan.
According to research, this fight actually did happen early on in Lee’s career but not in the way things played out in Birth of the Dragon. For one, the Steve McKee character is supposedly an homage to actor Steve McQueen who was a student of Lee’s. The connection is not only in similar name but McKee, like McQueen, had a rough upbringing and was from Indiana. While the film alludes to the Lee and Man fight being partly about getting Lee to stop teaching Caucasians kung fu as the background story states, the actual reasoning and overall narrative is changed in the film. It makes for a better story even if it is one that is rather far-fetched.
Where the film shines is in its action which was choreographed by martial arts action choreography legend Corey Yuen who has worked on over 70 films. His expertise shines in director George Nolfi’s somewhat flawed approach to the flick. Nolfi’s inexperience (his only other directorial work being 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau) is evident as the film appears choppy and even amateurish at times. However, the fight scenes stand out. The epic showdown between Lee and Man is impressive and gives the film a throwback feel.
Even though Birth of the Dragon isn’t a great film and, at times, not even a good movie, it is a highly entertaining one. The portrayal of Lee while possibly inaccurate paints him as a cocky, arrogant and confident hot head driven by his desire to become a star. The love story between McKee and Xiulan feels forced and the insertion of a great white hero who helps drive the plot feels a little unnecessary but, overall, the film delivers entertainment scene after scene. So, in the end, it’s easy to dismiss the movie’s shortcomings and take it for what it’s worth. Besides, it’s August. This might be the best you’re going to get at this point in the summer.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Yu Xia
Xia is quietly impressive in his role as Man. It’s easy to see why he is such a big star overseas and at age 38 still has a chance to get some roles in the United States that show off his talent.
- The Martial Arts Action
It’s no surprise with Corey Yuen as the choreographer that the martial arts in the film stands out and it definitely does.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- When Bruce Lee is the Fourth Most Interesting Character in His Own Biopic
That’s a problem.