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In the years since his passing, Bruce Lee has turned into nothing less than a behemoth cult figure. That said, despite his status as a pop culture icon known in every corner of the world, he has still yet to receive proper silver screen treatment. That is what George Nolfi's Birth of the Dragon aims to rectify, and while there are some great performances and solid Kung Fu moments on display, the film's insistence on sidelining Lee for most of its runtime ultimately does a disservice to his legacy.
Based on an allegedly true story from 1964, Birth of the Dragon meets up with Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) as a Kung Fu teacher and aspiring movie star in San Francisco's Chinatown. Talented but cocky, Lee finds himself in the fight of his life when his student and friend Steve (Billy Magnussen) orchestrates a fight between him and disgraced Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) in an attempt to free a young woman from the clutches of a local street gang. In the end, ideologies and fists collide as the two men bring their diametrically opposed styles together in one of the most iconic Kung Fu showdowns of the 20th century.
This match has become the subject of massive debate among Bruce Lee fanatics all over the world; so naturally, a live-action tale exploring the supposedly real events seems like a natural storytelling opportunity. However, Birth of the Dragon squanders the pure potential of the story by focusing far too much on the character of Steve and his struggles with Chinatown's criminal enterprise. Instead of a deep dive into the mind of Bruce Lee to understand a Hollywood legend, the film keeps him at arm's length and seems to actively avoid his involvement in the plot for bizarrely long stretches of time in favor of an undercooked love story.
The problem extends even further when we dive into the creative liberties taken with the overarching story itself. Aside from the fact that Steve simply eats up far too much of the film's runtime as its de facto protagonist, the movie also (arguably unwisely) chooses to Bruce Lee as San Francisco's resident vigilante. I understand that Bruce Lee was one of the most talented fighters who ever lived, and combat is a fundamental part of who he was as a man, but specific creative decisions made about how he operated in his neighborhood often border on disrespectful. Remember, just because a character like Iron Fist is inspired by the Kung Fu escapades of Bruce Lee does not necessarily mean that Bruce Lee was a street-level hero who brought the fight to gangsters.
With that said, although there's a pretty easy case to be made that Birth of the Dragon does not live up to the legend of Bruce Lee himself, Hong Kong action star Philip Ng deserves quite a bit of credit for inhabiting the icon so perfectly. As far as "biopic" (although Birth of the Dragon is not technically a biopic by strict definition) performances go, Ng captures his real life character better than most actors ever have. He moves like Lee, he sounds like Lee, and he conveys a cocky charisma that made the legendary martial artist an icon in his time.
The same can be said about Xia Yu, who represents the opposite side of the Kung Fu coin with his portrayal of Wong Jack Man. Unlike Ng's Bruce Lee, Wong is a traditionalist, and he shows a far more serious and measured mentality towards martial arts that are just as compelling as Lee's more flamboyant tendencies. The movie handles its two central Kung Fu masters with striking balance, and it enriches film's primary fight by making both of them worthy of the audience's support and admiration.
Speaking of the fight and the film's use of Kung Fu, that is admittedly an area in which this film excels. Shot in the same manner as a traditional Kung Fu film, Birth of the Dragon offers up some great fight choreography and cinematography that's not often seen in traditional western action cinema -- a benefit that we can mainly attribute to the skill of Philip Ng and Xia Yu. Director George Nolfi also makes some interesting creative choices that blend the more practical and realistic moves of the fighters with some more outlandish and almost supernatural moments -- which effectively lends the sense that Lee and Man are more than human when they're in the zone.
However, the most substantial issue with the film's fights stems from the fact that they are few and far between. Birth of the Dragon could've been a great love letter to martial arts by chronicling the buildup to that showdown between these two Kung Fu Titans, but it burns so much of its 103-minute runtime on Steve's story that there's simply not enough meat to satisfy a true action film aficionado.
What should've been an exploration of Bruce Lee devolves into a boring crime drama that merely features him. Despite some intense moments, too few live up to his legacy. If you want to actually understand Bruce Lee, then you are better off skipping Birth of the Dragon and going straight to Enter the Dragon or his now iconic Pierre Berton interview.