Let’s just get something out of the way up front: Birth of the Dragon is not a good movie. Hell, it’s not even a good action movie. But that doesn’t render it uninteresting, especially given the outcry over its initial screening at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where multiple reviewers slaughtered George Nolfi’s supposed Bruce Lee biopic for making a fictional white man the lead instead of the Dragon himself. As Screen Anarchy’s Todd Brown put it (while Birth of the Dragon was still in production back in 2015):
"The story here will be told from the point of view of fictional character Steve McKee, to played by Billy Magnussen, a student of Lee's whose loyalty is torn between Lee and Shaolin master Wong Jack Man as he enters the world of Kung Fu.”
Now this writer isn’t entirely sure what’s changed since a supposedly unfinished cut was screened at TIFF (and according to the publicists has since been re-edited), but the general gist of what Mr. Brown describes up above is still pretty much the movie we got in theaters. Steve McKee (Magnussen) is a white dude infatuated with Kung Fu as a means to try and get tougher, training to “kick ass” under Master Lee (Philip Ng). Grandmaster Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) travels to America, causing Lee to become paranoid that the Old World legend is here to challenge him due to Bruce training whites in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Steve becomes a gofer, running back and forth between the martial arts stars as a kind of whipped messenger boy. Meanwhile, he meets a cute Chinese girl (Qu Xingxing) who’s working as an indentured servant at a restaurant owned by local crime boss, Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing, more or less reprising her role from the Tony Jaa vehicle, The Protector [‘05]). In this traversing back and forth like a child relaying messages to divorced parents, Steve McQueen (sorry, “McKee”), learns the true value of martial arts as a spiritual means to center one’s self from Wong Jack Man, instead of the blunt tool of self-defense Lee presents it to be.
To be frank, if any of this offends you while reading this review, you’re probably going to be doubly upset while actually watching Birth of the Dragon. It’s a total miscalculation on the part of both director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau), and even more frustrating coming from screenwriters Steven J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson. Those two scribes were responsible for helping outline Michael Mann’s beautifully political portrait, Ali (’01), so the fact that they’d warp the legendary held-in-private battle between Lee and Jack Man into a sort of Karate Kid (’84) meets China Girl (’87) hybrid is beyond baffling. These guys should know better, and have done better before.
All that being said, Birth of the Dragon is strangely watchable and, dare I say it, pretty entertaining, if you’re able to get past the really dumb storytelling decisions and just accept it as a low rent riff on rather predictable formulas. Most of this is due to the rather basic, if still thrilling, fight choreography by Corey Yuen (The Transporter [‘02]). Nolfi is smart enough to get out of Yuen’s way whenever the fists and kicks start flying fast and furious, going either really wide with the camera or mounting it on a crane and hovering around the performers as they face off against one another. The cuts are minimal, so the impacts are felt, even in this bloodless PG-13 endeavor. Birth of the Dragon is never going to be held up as a lost martial arts classic, but the requisite action is properly staged and shot.
Problem is, the fisticuffs are few and far between, as most of the movie is comprised of Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man handing down parables regarding what Kung Fu means to each of them. Lee is presented as an asshole, all street flash and worried about when his next screen test is going to be held, instead of helping his students out when they’re in actual need (we’re about two years away from The Green Hornet [‘66], mind you). On the other side of this mystical Asian fence, Wong Jack Man is a stereotype – the wise sage from a far off land, puzzled by these Western ways as he does dishes in a local kitchen to spiritually cleanse himself for a mistake he made against a Tai Chi master during his last public demonstration (no, really). It’s all as dumb and After School Special-ish as it sounds, especially once Steve decides to use the showdown Lee keeps begging for with Jack Man as leverage against the local lords to free his lady love. Then we’re in a Rocky-lite countdown, eagerly wanting to know just who the hell would win between these two fighters.
That throw down actually isn’t as epic as the team up that inevitably occurs to help Steve set Auntie Blossom’s entire slave harem free, but Philip Ng and Yu Xia are having so much fun in their respective roles that its difficult not to get caught up in Birth of the Dragon’s admittedly breezy final thirty minutes. Ng imitates Lee’s trademark scream with fiery gusto, and Xia owns a quiet stoicism, even when the shit totally hits the fan. So while Nolfi’s film definitely acts as a more modern, polished version of the Brucesploitation that pervaded low budget martial arts movies in the wake of the Dragon’s untimely demise in 1973 (think: The Dragon Lives Again [‘77]) instead of the off-kilter biopic it was intended to be, there’s still a cheap thrill in watching these two performers play dress up and start laying many anonymous thugs flat on their backs while their white apprentice watches helplessly from afar.