Review: Birth of the Dragon (TIFF 2016)
PLOT: In 1964 Chinatown, a young Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) finds himself in conflict with Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) who’s been sent to keep Lee from teaching Kung-Fu secrets to whites - or has he?
REVIEW: The showdown between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man is one of the great martial arts legends, with DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY having depicted it as a violent encounter that almost left Lee paralyzed. No one really knows the outcome of the fight as there were only a few witnesses, and George Nolfi’s film presents the bout as less of a story of winners and losers, with the argument being made that it changed Lee’s style and gave him the encouragement to become the legend we know from his iconic films.
Given how much of a folk hero Lee is, it’s hugely disappointing that BIRTH OF THE DRAGON, instead of focusing on the legend himself, is actually about some white guy, who, it’s strongly hinted at is a fictionalized version of Steve McQueen (with his name here being Steve McKee), even if the dates make absolutely no sense at all as he’s practically homeless here while in 1964, McQueen was already the world’s most popular actor. How is it possible that in 1993, Hollywood could produce a successful Bruce Lee biopic anchored by an Asian lead, but in 2016, he becomes a supporting player in his own story?
The version of Lee here is ripped from popular culture, with him portrayed as a rebellious James Dean type who wants to be a star, and who teaches his students to “kick-ass” without much thought given to the philosophy behind martial arts. This is what puts him in conflict with the humble Wong Jack Man, who’s portrayed as struggling with a sense of guilt after almost killing an opponent during an exhibition match. The idea of any problem with Lee teaching Kung-Fu to whites is only briefly acknowledged, with the English-speaking monk quickly befriending Billy Magnussen’s white hero, even teaching him some of his Shaolin secrets.
Magnussen is a weird choice to lead the film, and seems to have been cast mostly due to his resemblance to McQueen, who really only became Lee’s student well after he became a star, when Lee was living in L.A (around the time he made ‘The Green Hornet’). Ng, who’s making waves in China as an action hero these days makes for a good Lee, although the performance is more based on his on-screen persona than what the man was actually like in his personal life. One thing’s for sure - Ng can fight and the eventual bout with Wong Jack Man in impressive, being filmed in an empty warehouse with Wong’s orange robes contrasting with Lee’s shirtless, ab-baring outfit.
Probably in an attempt to appeal to action fans, Nolfi (director of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU) has shoehorned in an east meets west love story between Magnussen and a Chinese girl enslaved to the Triads. The end is total fantasy, with Lee and Wong teaming up to take down the Traids and rescue the enslaved girls, with Ng even doing the iconic Lee bit where he gets cut, dips his finger into the blood and tastes it. It’s hardly realistic but at least it has energy, with the rest of the movie being fairly dull.
Other than Ng, the only thing that really works in BIRTH OF THE DRAGON is Mainland actor Xia Yu’s performance as the laid-back Wong, who unexpectedly emerges as the movie’s hero and in some ways is shown to be a more important sifu to Lee than the famous Ip Man, although I suspect this is a distinctly Hollywood twist. This is probably only of real interest to die-hard action fans although I maintain DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY is a much-more entertaining take on the Lee mythos. Anyone who really wants to learn about what really made Bruce Lee a star should just check-out his final film, ENTER THE DRAGON instead. It’s all right there on the screen.