Bruce Lee deserves better than this. A lot better. As one of the most important and influential martial artists and action stars of all time, he doesn’t need support from a fictional “friend.” If the last part of that sentence sounds confusing, it’s because the new film Birth of the Dragon is equally mystifying. What we are supposed to be seeing is the origin of Lee’s rise, his rivalry with Wong Jack Man, and how it all came together to shape the onscreen persona that is still loved by millions today.
Instead, we get is an exercise in bad storytelling marred by an equally offensive focus on some random guy, Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) and his romantic issues. You see, he’s a gambler and is in love with a woman (Jingjing Qu) who is being controlled by a local crime boss named Auntie Blossom (Xing Jin). He is also taking lessons in self-defense from…you guessed it, Lee (Philip Ng) himself. When Wong (Yu Xia) shows up to escape an embarrassing situation back home in China, he ends up confronting the future legend, angry that he is teaching their ways to West. Naturally, a challenge is issued, and before long, the Chinese mob are betting on the outcome of this mega-fight.
By the time Lee and Wong are teaming up to help Steve get the girl, Birth of the Dragon has become a lumbering laughing stock. Forget the whole “based on a true story” BS the movie’s PR is trying to sell you. This is a faked fiction, a made up, meaningless attempt to lessen who Lee was while jacking up a wholly non-existent protagonist who is more interested in dating than determining the legend of this amazing icon. Sure, a pure biopic would have been just as generic, a way of further diluting the still growing mythology of this man.
But Birth of the Dragon thinks its being clever and inventive when it’s really just misguided and mean spirited. After all, few fans are coming to this film to see their hero portrayed as a cocky, arrogant jerk who needs to be taken down a few pegs. In fact, it’s safe to say that this movie wasn’t made for the purist, the person who has studied the late, great fighter and his impact on the genre. Instead, it’s for someone who knows Lee’s name from the constant references by others and the occasional dubbed title on late night TV.
It’s hard to imagine how Birth of the Dragon could work. The main event, the one on one between Lee and Wong, is rather minor, logistically. It wasn’t some Raid 2 superfight that moves from human battling to comic book hero histrionics. Instead, it was a down and dirty lesson in arrogance vs. patience, the history of martial arts vs. Lee’s desires to push the boundaries and expand its reach. It has the makings of an amazing, insightful effort. But Birth of the Dragon is not that. Instead, its a creaky, cloying mess.
Perhaps it’s unfair to argue what this movie isn’t against what it is. Looking at Birth of the Dragon without any context, it still stinks. It’s got a decent cast, capable of carrying both the physical and emotional needs of the characters and the fight scenes have a snap and an energy that draws us in. But for every item that provides a bit of entertainment, there are dozens that just don’t work. We don’t care what happens in the love story, and sadly, this element keeps constantly interrupting anything vital.
Birth of the Dragon is not a complete and utter disaster. But it definitely should have it’s subject doing round house kicks in his grave.