Director: George Nolfi
Screenplay: Christopher Wilkinson, Stephen J. Rivele
Starring: Philip Ng, Xia Yu, Billy Magnussen, Jin Xing
Runtime: 89 Minutes
The extent to which Birth of the Dragon manages to flub its pitch as a Bruce Lee origin story is baffling to take in. Although very much as posited a fictitious interpretation of events, it depicts the apparently true story wherein young martial artist Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) challenged kung fu master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) to a secret one-on-one fight in San Francisco, 1964.
It is considered by many to be one of the most pivotal moments in Bruce Lee’s life and career, as following in the wake of the legendary fight – the details of which vary between Lee’s going against tradition by teaching fighting techniques to white people, to his opponent simply stepping up to a challenge – Lee was forced to transform his Wing Chun style of fighting into his signature Jeet Kune Do technique, which directly affected the shape and representation of mixed martial arts competitive fighting culture all over the world.
All of which is far more interesting to tuck into than the narrative that the film hands us. Instead, opting to position Lee as a secondary character to the insufferable Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen), a Bruce Lee's made-up white American student that the film twists its narrative around to serve.
The angle they approach the match from is instead positioning the fight as a kind of front so that Steve can rescue his Chinese girlfriend from the servitude of the Chinatown Mafia, and Steve gets all broken up because he sees his bestest two friends in the entire world (for some reason) being forced to fight each other on his behalf.
It’s as nakedly absurd and ridiculous as it all sounds, even more so than the other more believable stories concerning the fight. Never mind who bad it looks to position the white guy at the centre of this story, but the film osculates so violently between the sibilance of true elements and an absurdist fantasy rendering that all but disconnects it from anything approaching reality.
Made worse is the near total lack of engagement from the performers and filmmakers. For a film running just shy of 90 minutes, it feels much longer thanks to an inactive pace and tedious dialogue and character types. Depicting the young Bruce Lee as an ego-driven show off stripped of his stoic grace could make sense, but the 40-year-old Philip Ng just sucks at selling it.
When it finally arrives, the fight itself is rather well staged when compared to the rest of the film, and Xia Yu is quite imposing considering his lack of actual experience in the field. Even if it does just boil down to a strange precognitive display in which Wong Jack Man only fights Lee to allow him to unlock his true potential.
Birth of the Dragon is a bizarrely misjudged half measure that all too often concerns itself with the wrong parts of what should be an alluring true story.