Birth of the Dragon review: This inspired-by-fact tale does little to inspire or enlighten and only very occasionally enlivens.
Birth of the Dragon review by Andrew Gaudion.
The life of Bruce Lee is one that has fascinated movie fans for decades and has led to a big-screen biopic once before in the form of Rob Cohen’s entertaining and respectful 1993 film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. His unique style of Kung Fu and his supernova-esque burst of success solidified him as a true icon of the 20th Century. It shouldn’t be a surprise that filmmakers want to continue to add to that iconography with films that explore aspects of his rich but brief life.
Birth of the Dragon has a degree of pedigree behind it, the type of pedigree that would lead you to believe that this will be a sincere approach to depicting a chapter in the life of Bruce Lee. It is directed by George Nolfi of The Adjustment Bureau fame and is written by the screenwriters of Ali and Nixon. Yet, what they have produced here is something more akin to fan fiction than it is an earnest look at the unique life of Lee. It is one that often feels misguided, consistently ridiculous and only sporadically fun.
The film takes the infamous event of Lee’s (portrayed here by Philip Ng) fight with Kung Fu master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) and creates a fictionalised account of the events in 1964 San Francisco leading up to the face-off between the two masters who promote clashing ideologies of Kung Fu. Nolfi and his writer’s decide to stylise the film in a similar manner to the films that made Lee famous. Sounds all well and good, no? Unfortunately the film wraps up its story of these two kung fu masters in a narrative that is desperately un-engaging and wildly mis-judged.
You see, Birth of the Dragon posits that the reason why Lee and Man fight is to help one of their students, white American Steve (Billy Magnussen, made to look like a poorman’s Wild Bunch Brando) save the girl he has fallen for, Xiulan (Jingjing Qu) who is being forced to work for a gang lord in Chinatown. Why on Earth the creative involved thought it would be a good idea to often side-line Lee and Man in favour of devoting time to a lame romance is beyond me. Sure, it is hokey enough to match the melodramatic nature of some of the plot setups that characterise Lee’s own films, but at least the likes of Enter the Dragon and Game of Death made the hero’s quest a journey that its main hero himself embarked upon – that hero being Bruce ‘Frickin’ Lee!
What could have been an interesting look at clashing ideologies in kung fu between Lee and Man frustratingly plays second-fiddle to a dull American character. Ng and Yu’s performances contrast well enough to convince you that the two actors could easily have carried off a movie which focused on the two masters, instead the film feels the need to pad the drama out with a very lame excuse for a plot.
Thankfully, the film does deliver when it comes to action. Whole some of the throwbacks to the cinematic stylings of Lee’s famous on-screen moments feel a little cheap (slow-motion waving hand, check! Bear claw knives, check!), there is a high energy kineticism to the action scenes, thanks to the athleticism of Yu and particularly Ng who has an uncanny likeness for Lee. A final act which goes down the martial arts movie trope of taking down a group of thugs in a multi-storied building gives in to an almost pastiche sense of fun, giving the final act a welcome boost of spectacle which works as a homage to Lee, despite how ridiculous it often feels. It is just a shame it felt the need to get there on the back of boring Steve’s motorbike.
Birth of the Dragon’s strong fight sequences can’t make up for the un-engaging storyline at its core, one which baffling-ly side-lines its subject in favour of (let’s call it what it is) a whitewashed narrative. The central concept is undoubtedly an inspired one; taking an event of Lee’s life that is shrouded in infamy and presenting it in a style akin to Lee’s own films sounds like it should be great fun. Alas, this inspired-by-fact tale does little to inspire or enlighten and only very occasionally enlivens. A squandered opportunity.
Birth of the Dragon review by Andrew Gaudion, February 2018.
Birth of the Dragon is released in UK cinemas on Friday 23rd February 2018.