Before Birth of the Dragon starts we are told about a legendary fight that happened between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. The two men being legendary masters of Kung Fu. We are then informed the following movie was inspired by this fight. Around this time a curious warning tingle began to go off in the back of my head.
There is a long history of movies playing fast and loose with the facts of what actually happened. The best movies tend to be ones who say they are ‘inspired by true events’ and or who flat out don’t say anything at all. By telling us Birth of the Dragon is inspired by a ‘fight’, the director, George Nolfi, has tipped his hand. It shows us that Nolfi and his screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson lack confidence in their story.
The irony is the knowledge of the inspiration for the story does nothing to spoil are enhance it. Birth of the Dragon requires no knowledge of anything prior to the movie to be understood. Mainly because Birth of the Dragon is so devoid of substance, fun or otherwise, that any historical facts before or since are utterly meaningless. A baffling fact considering that if they had the wherewithal they could have made a raucous movie about buddy street fighters who take on organized crime.
The real insult to the injury is Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) isn’t even the main character in his own movie about his personal journey. Lee is bumped down to, I kid you not, the third most important character in the story. His character is framed of all things, as the heel.
Birth of the Dragon is really about Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen). About his struggle to learn Kung Fu and win the heart of Xiulan Quan (Jingjing Qu). Qu is fine given she’s given nothing to do but bow and look adoringly at McKee. The idea of white men as the bland de facto lead is an old joke both on the internet and in critical circles. But sweet jumping Jehoshaphat Mangnussen’s McKee is a mix of drab earnestness and dramatic torpor.
Birth of the Dragon a story inspired by a fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) written about in an article by Michael Dorgan, is about a white man trying to learn the lessons of Kung Fu. A white man who has to twist the arms of both Jack Man and Lee to help save his girlfriend.
Much of the movie concerns McKee as he goes back and forth between Lee and Jackman delivering messages for the other. Messages that reveal almost nothing about anyone or anything. They exist as blatant and needless exposition. When Lee learns Jackman has come to San Francisco he surmises he is an emissary to stop Lee from teaching Kung Fu to Westerners.
We know Jackman is here because he almost killed a man in China during a badly choreographed fight we were forced to witness at the beginning of the movie. He has come to pay penance for his pride and arrogance. Jackman atones for his sins by washing dishes.
Xia is charming as Wong Jackman. For a brief period, we are even led to believe the movie will be through his eyes. This would make sense as he eventually comes to believe Bruce Lee is the future of Kung Fu. But first, Lee must humble himself and understand the true spiritual nature of Kung Fu. Unfortunately as stated before, Birth of the Dragon, is about McKee and so Xia is relegated to the cringing stereotypical shy and reserved fountain of wisdom. He never says “There is an old Chinese saying…” but there a few times where he dances pretty damn close to it. At least Jackman is only relegated to secondary character status.
Poor Bruce Lee has to struggle to be relevant in his own movie. Ng as Lee is an astonishing blank slate. Due to the shocking lack of story for his character, Ng is forced to impersonate Lee more than portray him in any meaningful sense. He has a great charm and presence but he’s reduced to posturing and bragging about his own greatness. Birth of the Dragon cares less about Lee than it does Jackman. The result being an almost unforgivable misuse and waste of Ng and Xia’s obvious talents.
Since Lee and Jackman are inherently the two most interesting people in Birth of the Dragon we of course return to McKee. At some point, presumably, to pad the run time, McKee meets, woos, and secretly dates Xiulan. Xiulan is one of Auntie Blossom’s (Jin Xing) girls, forced to work in her restaurant until she can gain her freedom.
The two go out one night after she sneaks out of her dorm. Xiulan is held under such scrutiny that her every move is monitored. Whoever she talks to is known. She tries to teach English to the other girls but somehow Auntie Blossom knows. Yet somehow she can sneak out of her room without detection. How she does this the movie never explains. Nolfi and his writers have clearly never studied a Kung Fu film. They have apparently studied numerous teen sex comedies and have labored under the notion that college aged women can sneak out of any building they’re in when it comes to boys.
Now we get to the fight that inspired this whole haberdashery of bland mediocrity. Auntie Blossom hunts down McKee. Tells him if Lee and Jackman fight she’ll release Xiulan. Blossom takes bets on who will win. That’s it. All that boring contrived nonsense was for this. The final showdown is even more infuriating. The fight is a mess of camera zooms, quick cuts, slow motion, and time lapse photography.
Rarely has an American movie about Kung Fu or Bruce Lee been this wrong headed and horribly misguided. Throughout much of the fight, we are left strangely ambivalent about the whole affair. When McKee warns Lee that his ‘no rules’ stipulation will end with one of them dead, we know this is not true. Birth of the Dragon may invent things out of whole cloth, but it does so out of a need to for pages in the script, not because of imagination. No, we know Jackman and Lee are safe. There are no stakes.
Toward the end, a curious thing happens. The fight ends in a draw. Auntie Blossom demands to know the winner so she knows how to payout. Why she can’t just make something up is never explained. But then she threatens to hold Xiulan until a winner is announced. Birth of the Dragon then does something it should have done all along. Lee and Jackman team up and take on Auntie Blossom’s organization.
For a brief sublime moment, Ng and Xia are allowed to actually play off each other. They trade one liners and barbs. There’s a joyous snap to their performance lacking throughout rest of the movie. Even the choreography is filmed in a way so we can actually see what’s going on. The slow motion utilized for its best purpose: to slow down a particularly fast and difficult maneuver for the naked eye to comprehend it.
For a movie that has been curiously devoid of style Birth of the Dragon invents one seemingly out of thin air as the two men banter and fight their way through Blossom’s Chinese restaurant. The moment is so glorious and fun, it’s a shame that predictably ends with a thud. The two men face Auntie Blossom and reveal who won the fight. They both did. Blossom is then told she can tell the people whatever she wants. Which she could’ve done in the first place.
Birth of the Dragon is a relic of a time that shouldn’t even exist anymore. A story about two Chinese men who are forced to the sidelines so it can focus on the feelings and aspirations of its one white character. The whole thing is so patently absurd and offensive I had trouble believing what was happening before me.
I said at the beginning this movie should have been about Lee and Jackman taking on the Chinese mob. It may not have happened but neither did most of the other stuff we were forced to witness either. We live in a post-Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter world. I think the audience would have been able to handle a movie about two Chinese Kung Fu masters who don’t get along at the beginning, but by the end realize that they’re more alike than they are different. Maybe, just maybe learn a little something about themselves along the way. Frankly, they probably would have preferred it.