Some people have religious symbols on their walls, others posters of their favorite bands or girls in bikini’s, but my favorite wall decoration as a kid was a photograph of Bruce Lee. It was an 8×10” that I got at the Flea Market, but he was my hero and I was proud to display it. I’d always been into martial arts, largely due to seeing the Karate Kid as a child, and when I found Bruce Lee I was captivated. So, one would think I would have rushed to the theater to see Birth of the Dragon, directed by George Nolfi, but, instead, I reluctantly went the week after it’s initial release.
Birth of the Dragon doesn’t really earn the title, but still offers some cool martial arts sequences.
Birth of the Dragon claims to be the story of the fight between Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) and Bruce Lee (Philip Ng), which is definitely in the movie, but really focuses on one of Lee’s students, Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen). Steve seeks out Wong Jack Man to train him and Lee takes his arrival to San Francisco as a challenge to his philosophy of teaching.
What you likely took away from that is the film is a bit of a mess. Nolfi makes some odd choices in story structure and in display of some of the fights. Particularly in the very long fight between Lee and Wong Jack Man. The fight starts off looking very cool before the addition of odd special effects and slow motion Bruce Lee yelling. While some of them are inspired by Kung Fu films, there are many choices that show the amateur quality of both the filmmaker and the writers.
That said, there was a lot to enjoy in the film. While calling this film a biopic is a bit of a stretch, unless the biography was on Steve McKee, a person made up for this movie, there are a lot of cool fight sequences and some interesting Kung Fu philosophies. I enjoyed both Philip Ng and Yu Xia. Despite the many problems with the plot and the contrived scenes of dialogue exposition, there was enough to keep me and my daughter smiling throughout.
Birth of the Dragon is a mess of a film that really hopes you care enough about Bruce Lee’s legacy that you’ll stick through all of the nonsense. None of the story in this film seems to be historically accurate, but it does paint a different picture of Bruce Lee than I’d seen before. More arrogant and brash than depicted in Dragon: The Bruce Lee story, but he does arc a bit despite barely being in the movie about him. Birth of the Dragon earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.