Birth of the Dragon and all the images you see in this review are owned by BH Tilt and WWE Studios
Directed by George Nolfi
Now I’ve always been more of a Jackie Chan guy myself (sorry, but the guy has a much larger filmography and basically reinvented the genre by incorporating vaudevillian slapstick into the martial arts) but Bruce Lee is a dude who earned all the respect that he gets by being the first big Asian star in cinema and defining a genre of film for generations to come. There have been plenty of Bruce Lee films since his death in 1973, almost all of which were in pretty poor taste, but there hasn’t been one in quite some time so maybe now is the time to remind everyone just how awesome and badass he was with a brand new and super slick Hollywood production… or at least something approaching that. Can this film bring the man back to the forefront of action filmmaking one more time, or is this yet another example of how to pay tribute to him in the worst way possible? Let’s find out!!
The story begins in 1960s San Francisco where Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) hasn’t quite made it as a star but is certainly building up a following as the country’s greatest martial artist and a potential star of the silver screen. Of course, with this brazen attitude and willingness to teach anyone of any race the secrets of Eastern martial arts had gotten the ire of some of the more traditional masters back in China; including Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) who’s come to San Francisco as some sort of journey of self-discovery and repentance for his own misdeeds. One of Lee’s students Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) goes to greet Wong Jack Man at the port and they soon form something resembling a friendship with the latter still not happy with what Lee has been teaching to people like Steve which has always been a sacred practice as well as Chinese one. Eventually Lee’s pride and arrogance (and to a certain extent Wong Jack Man’s as well) leads the two to eventually meet and have a rather public standoff that may someday lead to the fight to end all fights. Oh, and there are Chinese gangsters in this movie somewhere because what kind of martial arts movie would this be if there WEREN’T Chinese gangsters hanging around? Will Bruce and Wong find a way to hash out their differences, even if they have to face each other in combat to do so? Will Steve be able to save his girlfriend from those Chinese Gangsters we were talking about because OF COURSE that subplot has to be in here somewhere? Is it just me, or does the guy in this movie look more like Moe Howard than Bruce Lee?
I haven’t heard a lot of positive buzz for this movie, so color me surprised that I actually found that it was a great deal of fun to sit through with some fantastic action scenes (all of which are phenomenally shot) and solid performances from our lead actors. The thing about this movie that I wasn’t expecting is that this is NOT in fact another Bruce Lee biopic like Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, rather it has more in common with the films that Bruce Lee actually made and even those Bruce Lee movies that were made after his death. Whenever the movie indulges in its larger than life Kung Fu theatrics and old school martial arts melodrama, it’s an absolute blast to sit through. Whenever it’s NOT though is when I start to have mixed feelings on it. One of the two primary plots in this story concerns Bruce Lee’s burgeoning fame in the west and the transformation of martial arts from a sacred practice among the most dedicated of warriors to a form of entertainment for the masses, and I’m not certain the movie is quite on point with that story. It makes some admittedly BOLD decisions that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other media concerning Bruce Lee which at least got me to THINK about the movie, but for some I can see this being a huge turn off or even insulting to the guy’s memory. At least they still managed to have him punch stuff real good!
The movie’s biggest gimmick if you will is that this is the only piece of Bruce Lee media that I’ve ever heard of that portrays him in a less than flattering light; so much so that it’s not clear until the third act if he’ll be the straight up villain of this story or not. I won’t claim to be anything close to an expert on the guy, nor how he’s perceived in other countries, but my understanding is that he’s more or less considered an untouchable and inspiring figure all over the world; especially in China as he was one of the first Asian actors to be not just a great actor, but a STAR. Someone who everyone looked up to and respected, which is not to speak ill of other actors from that time, but he was Schwarzenegger big before that was even a thing. Now take all that and then realize that this movie goes far out of its way to show Bruce as an arrogant jerk who needs to humbled, and you have something that… I’m not quite sure how to feel about. On the one hand, it’s kind of the whole point of the movie to get Bruce from that point to the super star he became (the BIRTH of the Dragon as it were) and it also at least manages to ask interesting questions about him and what he did for Easter martial arts in general instead of merely making him a jerk for the sake of doing it. What are those questions? Well, those are mostly conveyed through the character of Wong Jack Man who represents the ideal of what Eastern martial arts was prior to Bruce’s attempt to democratize its practice to the rest of the world. He’s stoic, enlightened, very humble, and perfectly willing to admit when he’s wrong so that he can therefore improve himself. While Bruce represents the populist, ass kicking, and (to a certain extent) lowest common denominator appeal of the practice, Wong Jack Man represents the more spiritually fulfilling and exclusionary version of it that could be threatened if Bruce succeeds in sharing it with the public at large. At the very least, it’s an interesting dynamic that I wasn’t really expecting to be in a movie produced by Blumhouse Tilt and the WWE.
Now the million dollar question here is, does the movie fairly represent both sides of the argument? To be honest… I’m still not sure. I BELIEVE that the movie tips its hand too far into favoring Wong Jack Man through the way it films the two characters and how it leaves out certain details about Bruce Lee that would have been very relevant. There’s mention of how the Chinese masters (such as Wong Jack Man) have intentionally excluded Bruce due to him being of mixed race (his grandmother was white) as well as the fact that he has a white wife, yet the movie never gives THIS part of the discussion nearly enough screen time; at least compared to how often we watch Wong Jack Man espouse about the virtues of his way of practicing martial arts. Hell, Linda Lee Cadwell who you’d think would be VERY relevant to this story NEVER ONCE shows up in this movie which feels like an enormous oversight. Now this favoring of Wong Jack Man over Bruce Lee DOES eventually make a certain amount of sense considering where the movie ends up going, but it feels like the film is a bit too manipulative about it to feel like a legitimate argument is taking place.
There’s also the fact that the audience POV character is the white guy which isn’t as HORRIFYINGLY bad as Wind River, but still makes things a little bit awkward at points. Now to be sure, this movie is OVERWHELMINGLY cast by really great Asian actors like Philip Ng who’s a lot of fun as Bruce Lee and Yu Xia who perfectly encapsulates the kind of character that Wong Jack Man is portrayed as; not to mention that Billy Magnussen never at ANY point takes this movie away from our two leads. He’s more akin to those kid characters in movies like Last Action Hero or The Dark Tower where at most they’re pushing the plot forward at times while acting as audience surrogates (and sometimes acting as the film’s moral center), but never truly takes command of the screen away from whoever we’re supposed to be following. Still, there’s the unfortunate assumption baked into this that by having the POV character in this overwhelmingly Asian story be white that that is considered the default that ALL audiences should relate to (it’s not) and since his arc is in conjunction with the movie’s arc (Wong Jack Man needs to humble Bruce Lee) it ALSO has the unfortunate assumption that this white dude is more respectful of Eastern culture than Bruce Lee is. That makes it bit harder to buy the iconoclastic themes that this movie is going for; especially when you ALSO realize this is written and directed by white dudes. That’s not to say that the writing and directing in this is BAD (the names behind this movie are VERY impressive considering what production houses are involved), but there’s no denying that some of the things that irked me about the film, whether intentional or not, can almost certainly be pointed to the perspectives this movie is coming from.
I know I’ve spent the majority of this movie talking about respectful and nuanced portrayals of iconic figures, the potential downsides of commodifying sacred practices, and how white filmmakers can make obvious blunders when adapting an innately Asian story to the big screen, but let’s not forget that this movie KICKS SO MUCH ASS!! Okay, it’s not the MOST action filled movie out there and may not have the over the top bombast of one of the Raid films, but there’s no denying the talent in front of and behind the camera when it comes to the movie’s action set pieces. All of them are shot clearly and without any of that shaky cam bullshit to obscure the action and the edits are far enough apart that you get to fully witness the intricate maneuvers on display. How is it that so many action films can’t even pull this off when the characters AREN’T doing complex martial arts techniques that require a sharp eye for cinematography to truly capture? Sure Atomic Blonde’s action is a phenomenal benchmark that this movie doesn’t quite live up to, but it’s certainly more exciting and interestingly shot than The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Transformers: The Last Knight or even The Dark Tower which is a movie I actually LIKED. Maybe there isn’t QUITE enough action if you truly hate the plot of this movie (the big set pieces are towards the end) but if you connect with it on any level, whether you’re on Lee’s side or agree with Wong Jack Man, you’ll find that there are more than enough punches to the face to keep you satisfied.
The one thing I didn’t expect from this movie is to be in any way complicated, and in some ways I feel it’s not intentional, but in other ways it really adds to the overall package; making it stronger than its sensationalistic premise and dopey execution would usually result in. It’s not gonna be for everyone and it even for those who enjoy it like myself, there’s probably gonna be something in there that drags everything else down, but there’s a certain brashness to the premise and sincerity in the film making that gives it a certain amount of charm. I certainly recommend seeing it in a theater, especially one with a great sound system so you can really appreciate it every time Bruce goes WHAAAAAA!!