Birth of the Dragon should have been aborted while the producers had the chance, for it’s a boring and mediocre film that lied about its DNA. If you’ve consumed any of the trailers or marketing hype for this kung-fu drama, you would have assumed that it is a biopic of the legendary Bruce Lee.
The Hong Kong/American national and founder of the martial art philosophy Jeet Kune Do, as we all know, is considered to be one of the greatest and most influential martial artists of all time. Even behind the scenes he took part in some epic fights and was tragically taken well before his time. Birth of the Dragon sold itself as a film about Lee before he became a phenomenon.
Like many, I grew up on martial arts films. While Jackie Chan and Jet Li have some great work from their early days, none could hold a candle to Lee’s whiplash style, realistic choreography and dry sense of humour; hence I was cautiously excited for Birth of the Dragon (even if it was distributed by WWE studios).
Birth of the Dragon lies about the film it is
Certainly, Birth of the Dragon had the makings of a better film. From a decent director (George Nolfi) to surprisingly good performances by Philip Ng (Bruce Lee) and Xia Yu (Wong Jack Man) to interesting fight choreography, there are pieces of an okay film here. While the trailers didn’t sell me fully on Ng, he carries more than a few shades of Lee in terms of characterisation and how he carries himself. Like Lee, his physique suggests very little body fat, and like Lee, he has some of the swagger of a cocky legend-in-making. I say ‘some’ because I can’t imagine how anyone could capture the truly mesmerising nature of Lee. Much of the action involving Ng is also fun, even if the scenes are overproduced, which Lee would never have approved of.
But the main issue is that neither Lee nor his chemistry with real-world rival Jack Man is a big component of the story. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Lee isn’t even the secondary character in Birth of the Dragon. No, the main character is a dorky fictional character named Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen). He’s so bland that if you still end up watching Birth of the Dragon, by the time it is over, you’ll despise him.
Here, Steve is presented as a student of Lee who falls in love with a woman being targeted by a powerful gang out of China Town that runs a prostitution ring. In order to save her, he basically needs to make Lee fight the gang. Eventually they do, but the sequence isn’t enough to warrant the build-up or what feel like hours of Steve.
To make matters worse, the characterisation of Steve is also poor. He is a throwaway character taking centre stage in a movie about a once-in-a-lifetime martial artist’s fight with the Shaolin Monk who travelled to America to challenge him. Of course, this only makes sense in the mind of a whitewashing Hollywood studio exec, who probably felt that a movie about Asian American superstars would never work without shoehorning in a white character the audiences could identify with.
Had the studios simply focused on the lives of Lee and Jack Man and built up to their epic fight, this would have been a very different film.
Rated PG-13 for martial arts violence, language and thematic elements
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 10th, 2017