Birth of the Dragon review by Bobby Blakey
There is no one that has established themselves as more of an icon in both martial arts and film than Bruce Lee. There have been a few projects that have focused on his life and career, but none will ever be able to fully capture the man himself. The latest Birth of the Dragon stars Philip Ng, Yu Xia, Billy Magnussen, and Simon Yen with The Adjustment Bureau director George Nolfi at the helm and looks to focus more on his legendary fight with Wong Jack Man, but does it offer anything more the mysterious story or will it fail to do the dragon justice?
Birth of the Dragon follows a modern take on the classic movies that Bruce Lee was known for. It takes its inspiration from the epic and still controversial showdown between an up-and-coming Bruce Lee and kung fu master Wong Jack Man - a battle that gave birth to a legend. Like most I was a bit put off by the trailer and conflicted all at once. On the one side I love all things marital arts and of course Bruce Lee, but also don’t want the man’s legacy dismissed and mocked so always afraid to see where they go with it. Right out of the gate it tells of the known history via text and makes sure to let the audience know that this film was inspired by that story and not telling that story. That instantly got me a bit more relaxed and allowed me to view this film in a different light. That being said this is a real hit and miss overall experience mostly due to the lack of direction to what story they really want to tell.
What they have really put together is a film that is structured very much like one of Bruce Lee’s movies that is meant to play up as more of a marital arts action film than anything resembling history. While this may irritate some, I found it more of a relief as it is very clear that they weren’t even attempting to make full on reality. There actually three stories here with one of them that should have been completely left out. The first is the obvious world of Bruce Lee that is really all about his pushing for fame and prominence, the second being that of Wong Jack Man dealing with his own redemption and finally of one of Lee’s students doing whatever it was he was doing. It’s the final inclusion that really messes this film up. They could have still made this film and expanded it out in the same way and completely ditched his story and it would have worked so much better.
The other two stories work well but have their own issues. The biggest issue is the portrayal of Lee, but by the end I kind of understand why they did it here. For most of the film they have taken the more pompous and self-involved Lee almost to the point of making him a villain and at times a parody of himself. While this annoyed me throughout the whole film it wasn’t until I saw why that made it work a little bit better. This was part of his journey to become the Dragon we all know and respect and showcase the change in his own self to make him so much more. The best of the stories is really that of Wong Jack Man as it is structured in a way that makes you interested and want to see more from him.
The film obviously builds to the big fight between the two and I was actually entertained by its execution more than I had thought I would be and the ending made me very happy as it kept with the mystery of it all. To my surprise this fight is not the finale of the movie, but the catalyst to help the characters grow and showcase an unexpected aspect that makes the movie something completely different at the end that reminds you that this is not a factual tale in anyway. Those complaining about the take on Lee here needs to be remember that after he died in 1974 there were a slew of films that used his name and legacy to make him a film action star and not just an actor and that is really more what this film is.
There are a lot of other issues here, but stepping out it I found that I enjoyed it for the fiction that it was and just getting to see a film like this so reminiscent of the 70s Kung Fu flicks on the big screen. If you decide to give this film a chance just go see it as the piece of fiction that it is and intended to be and you might just have a good time, but if you are expecting anything regarding the true life and legacy of Bruce Lee then steer clear.