Birth of the Dragon Review
Bruce Lee is a legend. He has become a cultural touchstone for martial arts and movies about martial arts. His costumes, signature sounds and actions have all engrained themselves within popular culture, even if you have never seen any of his films then you are still aware of who he is. As such, countless films have been made to capitalise on and explore his character. When he died a whole genre of Brucesploitation films exploded in underground theatres, these then gave way to more tasteful biopics like Rob Cohen's Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story in 1993 and The Legend of Bruce Lee, the 2008 Chinese television take on the man with the one-inch punch. Both these seek to give us an overview of Lee's life, from his move to America to becoming one of the biggest international stars of all time.
However, all of them have glossed over a key event in Lee's history; the infamous fight between him and Wong Jack Man. The fight itself is interesting due to how little detail there is about it. Some say the fight lasted three minutes, some say up to twenty with only one remaining detail: Lee's victory. Enter WWE Studios' Birth of the Dragon, starring Philip Ng as the titular dragon, which seeks to show us one of the sides of the epic showdown.
Set in 1964, Birth of the Dragon follows Bruce Lee before the fame, during his time as a Wing Chun instructor in Los Angeles. One of his students, Steve McKee, works in a Chinese laundry and one day - when delivering tablecloths to the local Chinese restaurant that is also a front for the Triad - Steve meets one of the girls forced to work in the restaurant. At the same time, the legendary Shaolin monk, Wong Jack Man, arrives in San Francisco in order to learn humility. Lee thinks that Wong Jack Man is there to spy on him and his school. However, this is not the case. It is odd that a film that is reportedly about Bruce Lee and the fight between him and Wong Jack Man focusses on an American student named Steve and his quest to save the love of his life from the Chinese Mob. This is where we find the two most egregious problems with this film.
The story is obviously overstuffed. Birth of a Dragon is supposed to deal with the rivalry between Lee, the representation of modernity in Kung Fu, and Wong Jack Man, a Shaolin monk focussed on tradition. However, it also contains Lee's story, Wong Jack Man's shameful victory during a demonstration match, the rivalry between the two and a forbidden love story between one of Lee's students and a girl that is inexplicably tied to a crime syndicate. It is also clear that Bruce Lee isn't even the main character, that would be Steve McKee played by Billy Magnussen, an almost insulting entry point for a white audience - did the studio think an audience would be put off by Asian main characters?
The only extra on the disc is an interview with star Philip Ng who is quick to tell you that this is not a biopic; it is a fun kung-fu movie, an embellished tale based on a real person's life. It is a real shame, because Philip Ng is absolutely spellbinding in the role of Bruce Lee; he brings a great deal of accuracy and believability to his Lee. Here again, however, he is let down by story and structure. While you may not watch Birth of the Dragon the action takes a while to get going. After 54 minutes, some little skirmishes, a distinct lack of character motivation and build up we (finally) have the main fight between Lee and Man. It is certainly stylish, but like the rest of the film it feels like it is all flash and no substance.
We have been told that this is one of the greatest showdowns in martial arts history and yet this does not come across in the fight, there is no storytelling in the way our combatants move. There is, however, an interesting use of space and some fun filters that add to the action. Which is also the case with the final climatic fight to rescue Xiulan, Steve McKee's love interest which references Lee's signature blood licking from Enter the Dragon and is a lot more fun thanks to Ng, who looks like he is having a blast. However, to add insult to injury the fight and the main story ends in such a sudden and easy way that all you’re left with at the end of the film is a feeling of emptiness.
If you are going into Birth of the Dragon expecting a compelling tale about one of the greatest and most mysterious fights in modern history then you will be sorely disappointed. The film’s focus on everything else except Lee does make it seem like the filmmakers were just cashing in on his name. Even the action falls short, with only two major fights in the whole film. Aside from a pretty spot on Lee performance from Philip Ng, Birth of the Dragon feels more like a failed hatching.