Birth of the Dragon

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I came away with one unmistakable thought when I saw the movie, Birth of a Dragon.

I didn’t know that Bruce Lee, EYG Hall of Famer, was such a dick.

Now, this movie is clearly a fictionalized rendition of a real life fight between Lee and Shaolin monk master Wolf Jack Man which has become stuff of Urban Legend.  Since very few witnesses to the actual fight are still alive, this allows the filmmakers to give this “true story” a bit of a “historical fiction” aspect to it.

Wolf Jack Man (Xia Yu) was a legendary Kung Fu master who had come to San Francisco after a fight had gone wrong in China.  Wolf Jack Man was in search of a way to cleanse his soul and he found it in washing dishes.   Young and brash Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) was teaching others Kung Fu, and believed that Wolf Jack had been sent to spy on him.  Lee had been training non-Chinese people Kung Fu, and this was frowned upon.

However, the film takes a bit of a turn here.  One of Lee’s students, Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) meets a girl who was beholden to a local crime boss for money to repay bringing her in the country and he falls in love with her.  She is not allowed to speak English or to interact with other people, but they still come together in the star-crossed lovers story that we have seen a million times.

This story becomes the driving force behind the movie.  In fact, the movie makes it that the fight between Lee and Wolf Jack has to do with freeing the girl instead of personal issues between them.

I’m not sure the reasoning here, but Steve truly does become the main protagonist in this movie that features what was a major— legendary fight between two masters.

I am not sure the reasoning here.  Were they just trying to make it so neither Lee or Wolf Jack had to look bad?  If so, they failed, as I mentioned earlier, Lee is portrayed as quite the jerk in much of this movie.  It is not as if the character of Steve is the most engaging and enthralling personality on screen.  He is basically milquetoast and one-dimensional.  The relationship with him and the girl Xiulan (Jingjing Qu) is shallow and unimaginative.  There is no reason that the character of Bruce Lee has to be reduced to a supporting character in his own movie.

Both of the actors playing our two main martial artists are pretty good.  The Bruce Lee portrayal is even exceptional.  The action scenes, including the fight between them, are really well done and visually enjoying.  There could have been an epic movie here dealing with two characters on different ends of the Kung Fu spectrum with differing thoughts and styles facing off.  If you are going to fictionalize it anyway, why are you adding this boring love story that makes no sense and dumping this dull Steve character in the middle of the film?

The pessimist in me says it is because Steve is white and the studio believed that they needed a white guy for the audience to connect to.  I sure hope that is not the reason, though I will admit that I thought it might be.

This movie was not a bad watch, but it could have been so much better.  There was no reason why Steve and his girlfriend should have taken one minute of screen time away from Bruce Lee or Wolf Jack Man, but that is what the ton of studios involved (there were about six studios identified at the beginning of the film) has gone with.  Too bad.  Because Bruce Lee and Wolf Jack Man could have been more than enough to make this an exciting film.

2.5 stars

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