In 1964, before he was a kung-fu superstar, Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) was an up and coming actor in San Francisco, who also taught kung fu in Chinatown, with one of his students being Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen). When Shaolin Master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) arrives in San Francisco to perform penance following a mistake, he is challenged to a fight by Lee. Even though Wong initially turns down the fight, it soon becomes the best chance to free Xiulan (Jingjing Qu), a restaurant hostess Steve has fallen for, from the control of crime boss Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing).
Even four decades after his death, Bruce Lee remains one of the most well known martial arts superstars in the world. Birth of the Dragon focuses on Bruce Lee’s life nine years before he made his most famous film Enter the Dragon. At this point in the early 1960s, Lee is struggling to get his acting career off of the ground while he teaches his students kung fu at his school in San Francico’s Chinatown. At this point in his life, Bruce Lee is overconfident and cocky, which disappoints Shaolin Master Wong Jack Man, who believes that kung fu shouldn’t be used to stroke a man’s pride. At the urging of Steve McKee, Wong agrees to fight Bruce Lee so the local gang will release Steve’s love interest Xiulan, and make a profit by betting on the winner.
Birth of the Dragon made publicity of the wrong kind back during the film’s festival run, with the film being criticized for focusing too heavily on the Caucasian character Steve McKee, who is loosely based on actor Steve McQueen. While the film has since been heavily reedited to try and bring the focus back to Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man, McKee does remain a major central presence within the film, with him acting as a mediator between Lee and Wong, and his love for Xiulan being a major driving force of the plot. Even though an effort was made to fix it, having a white guy being a major presence in a Bruce Lee biopic is somewhat a disservice to the star’s legacy.
It also doesn’t help that for much of the film that Philip Ng portrays Bruce Lee as a somewhat arrogant jerk. Even after Lee supposedly learns some lessons from his fight with Wong Jack Man, he is often a hard character to root for. Birth of the Dragon is also a weird blending of fiction and reality, which can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a biopic about Bruce Lee or one of Bruce Lee’s films. In fact, the “based on a true story” tagline kind of goes out the window when the film builds to a full on martial arts climax against Auntie Blossom’s gang. The martial arts fighting is probably one of the only real reasons to see Birth of the Dragon and even then the scenes are marred by a rock score and some odd speed ramping.
Is Birth of the Dragon Essential Viewing?
While an effort was made to correct the white-washing in the festival cut, Birth of the Dragon is still not really a biopic worthy of Bruce Lee. Might be better to opt for the real thing and watch Enter the Dragon.
Birth of the Dragon opens on Friday, August 25, 2017 at Cineplex locations. Check their website for more information.