Birth of the Dragon is a biopic of legendary martial arts and action film star Bruce Lee (portrayed here by Philip Ng). It tells the story of his rise to prominence in the Western world, and the confrontation between him and monk martial arts master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu).
Except, Birth of the Dragon really wants to focus on a character named Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) and the Chinese mob in San Fransisco.
Thus marks the first major flaw with George Nolfi’s martial arts biopic. Considering emulating as mythic a figure as Lee is no easy feat, Ng provides a fun, if not one note, performance. Although, the script does not know how to balance the character’s cocky movie star attitude and his earnest mentorship mentality.
The film wants us to believe that he has to overcome his Hollywood hubris in order to truly live up to his martial arts power (this would be a functional arc for the film). However, Lee is not present enough in the character’s own movie to make this arc come even close to fruition.
It feels like Lee is not the protagonist in his own film. We follow Magnussen’s character much more. He is some no-name Kung Fu hobbyist whose heart strings get tugged by an indentured servant to the Chinatown mafia.
This is by no means the most intriguing narrative in the film, and it certainly should not be the focus of a film about Bruce Lee. However, it receives prominence.
The real engaging narrative is what was alluded to at the beginning of this review. The ideological difference between Lee and Wong is a well that is only dipped into superficially, just enough so that pithy comments can be exchanged between them during their climactic fight.
If Birth of the Dragon was not a Bruce Lee biopic, Ng would likely be fifth or sixth billed in the film. In execution, this isn’t even his movie, which is truly a shame given that the figure could have received a fascinating and insightful biopic.
As a result of this unbalanced script, the buildup to this final showdown between the two figures does not adequately set the stakes. When the fight happens, it kind of just happens. Once it is over, it is hard to believe that this is the fight that we came to see.
Perhaps if the film cared about and properly developed this relationship between Lee and Wong then this fight would yield a satisfying conclusion, even if it remains shot as it is: a lengthy choreographed sequence shot with erratically variant styles and speeds.
This fight is bookended by not much better. In what feels like every scene in the first hour there are expository conversations that set up the backstory of the characters. There is one gambling addict character (Simon Yin) who, in particular, seems to only speak in exposition.
In general, story should not be told via characters walking and talking. Not outside of a Sorkin script, at least.
Following the big fight, the a-historical resolution makes a joke out of the shadowy villains the film wants us to feel dread over. It also contradicts Wong’s character so majorly that it causes the theme of the film to break down entirely.
The Kung Fu spirit has energy, and lots of it. That is why the genre is so well loved. As such, one would expect a Bruce Lee biopic to have some forward momentum. Some energy. Some verve. Instead, it has some stagnation. Some flaccid and misguided drama. Some detracting subplots.
Aside from the performances of Ng and Yu, Birth of the Dragon is marred by nearly innumerable shortcomings, all of which combine into a conventional mess of a film.
Birth of the Dragon: D+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)