Genre: Martial Arts
Director: George Nolfi
Cast: Philip Ng, Yu Xia, Billy Magnussen, Wu Yue, Simon Yin, Terry Chen, Ron Yuan, Jingjing Qu, Lillian Lim, Xing Jin, Vincent Cheng, Vanness Wu
Runtime: 1 hr 36 mins
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Opening Day: 7 December 2017 (Exclusively at Cathay Cineplexes)
Synopsis: Set against the backdrop of 1960s San Francisco, BIRTH OF THE DRAGON is a modern take on the classic movies that Bruce Lee was known for. It takes its inspiration from the epic and still controversial showdown between an up-and-coming Bruce Lee and kung fu master Wong Jack Man - a battle that gave birth to a legend.
Birth of the Dragon is sort of a half-baked Bruce Lee biopic that entertains purely as a martial arts B-movie. But to call this a character study on the pre-fame martial arts legend is just a plain insult.
George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) directs from a script written by Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele and it centers on Bruce Lee (Philip Ng from Once Upon A Time in Shanghai) during his time as a sifu teaching martial arts to the whites in San Francisco before he breaks into Hollywood with The Green Hornet. And also the movie is partly inspired by the controversial fight between Lee and a fellow martial arts teacher Wong Jack Man who lives down the road. No less than six men however witnessed the widely debated sparring session and that includes Lee’s wife, Linda who is not represented in any form here (since this is not a movie authorized by the Lee Family).
To turn this supposedly no-holds-barred fight into a full-length feature, Birth of the Dragon ridiculously takes liberty with the entire affair and resort to making Wong Jack Man (played by Xia Yu of In the Heat of the Sun) into a disgraced Shaolin monk who forced himself into exile after nearly fatally hurting an opponent. While Wong’s intention is to come to San Francisco to relearn his ways, Lee assumed Wong is here to challenge him for teaching martial arts to the whites, an absurd and unexplained reason on the screenwriters’ part.
But Nolfi and probably the backers (we saw the flashing logos of low-budget production house, Blumhouse and WWE) have no confidence in relying on two relatively unknown Chinese actors to sell the movie that they have to resort on a relatively unknown white actor, Billy Magnussen to play the part of Steve McKee, a student of Lee who got himself into triad trouble after falling in love with one of Auntie Blossom’s girls.
The late Steve McQueen who at one point studied under Lee inspired the role of Steve McKee but this is no excuse to work a lame romance subplot into a movie on Bruce Lee. And other than providing some action eye candy, the ludicrous climax featuring Lee and Wong working together to storm the triad’s quarters is one hell of a joke.
A familiar face in HK productions, Philip Ng who migrated to Chicago when he was young fittingly plays the part of a young, cocky Bruce Lee given his Wing Chun, martial arts background and his co-star, Xia Yu is excellent as the philosophy-spouting monk. Again, both actors are totally wasted in this martial arts biopic made by angmohs despite their best efforts. Other notable faces include up-and-coming star Wu Yue (SPL 3) stars as the unfortunate Tai Chi master who fights against Wong in the prologue and pop star Vanness Wu in a laughingly blink-and-miss cameo.
Given Blumhouse’s notorious budget, the production value on the whole is decent at least 60’s San Francisco looks authentic enough to non-locals. The choreography by Corey Yuen and Philip Ng while not flashy is swift and engaging. What’s sorely lacking is an insight into the private fight between Bruce and Wong Jack Man. It remains buried for decades and apparently not a reliable account of the event is ever recorded. Birth of the Dragon attempts to justify having a movie based on it but it’s nothing other than a fictitious actioner that embarrassed even the decades old Rob Cohen’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
(Stay for the stars and action. Just don’t expect a Bruce Lee biopic)
Review by Linus Tee