Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Birth of the Dragon

Directed by George Nolfi.
2016. Rated PG-13, 95 minutes.
Phillip Ng
Xu Yia
Billy Magnussen
Simon Yin
Ron Yuan
Lillian Lim
Wang Xi'an

A large part of Bruce Lee's mythology is his legendary but mysterious real-life fight with Master Wong Jack-Man. They went into a secluded warehouse with only a few witnesses present. When they left, Bruce realized he needed to make adjustments to his technique and began developing the philosophies that would eventually become his very own style in earnest. He would eventually name it Jeet Kun Do. According to people who were there, and are willing to talk about it, Bruce won the fight handily and quickly, but in sloppy fashion, hence the desire to revamp the way he fought. One person who was there, however, gives a very different account - Master Wong, himself. According to him, they fought for a glorious twenty plus minute before agreeing to declare it a draw. To that, I say consider the source, and the logic of two people fighting uninterrupted for that duration of time.

Why the two men fought is more debatable. Legend has it that Master Wong was recruited by Bay Area martial arts masters as a way to force Bruce to stop teaching their ancient art to non-Chinese people, particularly whites. However, a number of people who were part of that scene back then say that wasn't the case at all. They say Master Wong was recruited by those people, but it had nothing to do with the race of Lee's students. Instead, they maintain it was because Bruce was an arrogant, loud-mouthed prick who pissed off everyone in Chinatown by constantly disparaging every other teacher around by name and in public. Master Wong was simply supposed to teach him a lesson.

All of that history is important to my review because of how Birth of the Dragon employs it. The film attempts to combine all of those accounts into a homogeneous whole. It falls well short of doing this. If that were the film's only issue, it would still be a decent watch because that's an ambitious goal. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other problems. They crop up in the areas that are heavily fictionalized. I hate to use the dreaded W-word, whitewashing, but it is part of what ails this movie, starting with Master Wong. No, he isn't played by a white guy. However, the way he's portrayed here, by Xia Yu, is one hundred percent ancient-mystic-Yodaesque-Asian stereotype. From what I've read about him, this isn't the case. Depicting him this way does two things. First, it robs him of any real humanity. Everything he says feels like it came out of a fortune cookie. Rather than a three-dimensional person, he's a quote-machine spitting out the same ol' stuff similar characters have been saying for decades. Second, it makes him so pure that Bruce Lee, played by Phillip Ng, spends much of the film as the villain. The script emphasizes Bruce's arrogance. Therefore, even though he does some good things throughout, he's just not likable. That's a hard sentence for me to type, being a lifelong Bruce Lee fan, but I digress. Portraying him this way is an odd choice considering that the title of the movie refers directly to Lee in a heroic manner. Ng does an admirable job with the role, but the screenplay does him no favors.

The whitewashing is at its worse in other areas. Birth of the Dragon takes what should be a dual biopic about two Chinese men who eventually have a showdown and makes it about a fictitious white guy, a student of Bruce's, and his quest to rescue the poor Chinese girl he's fallen for. He, Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen), also serves as a go-between for Lee and Master Wong. It's a role that probably shouldn't go any further than that, but it does. The Chinese mafia is brought in to be the ultimate bad guys. They're the human traffickers that hold the girl hostage. This gives us a big, action-filled finale that includes Bruce's transition into sort of a co-hero. The storytelling is uninspired, at best. Mostly, it's unnecessary except as an excuse to give us the that lengthy final action sequence. And of course, it gives the white guy a reason to be valiant. Mind you, all of this is at the exclusion of the white person who is presumably the most important to the real Bruce Lee's story, his wife Linda. If there's a white angle to be played, it should involve her. Alas, she gets a mention, but never actually shows up.

There really is an interesting story to tell about the fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. Unfortunately, Birth of the Dragon doesn't bother to tell it. The film mixes, matches, and injects so much we're left with a movie that doesn't resemble anyone's truth, nor does it fit together in a way that works. Neither of its two protagonists is recognizable as a human being, at least not three-dimensional ones. Scratch that. No one in the entire movie is anything other than a flat trope. The action veers too far into ridiculous territory while plot machinations are lazy and predictable. As a generic action flick it may not be a total waste of time, because some of the fighting is fun. As a narrative, it just doesn't work because it makes zero effort to humanize its subjects and makes their movie about someone else.

Enjoy these posts about the real Bruce Lee:


  1. I'm not surprised by how bad the film is considering it's from the WWE. Like they make any good movies to begin with which is probably why Meekmahan isn't willing to learn to step away from what he knows as the rumors about him relaunching the XFL might happen. Ugh...

    1. Oh, it's terrible. To be honest, I don't think the original XFL was really a bad idea. The execution, on the other hand, was downright horrendous.

  2. This sounds like a hot mess. I'll take this as a reminder that I need to see more Bruce Lee movies though.

  3. I was afraid of this and most reviews have backed up my reservations. Something seemed off with this things from the start.

  4. Whoa. The history lesson that started this post is nothing short of brilliant. I dig Bruce, big time, but I knew nothing of this legendary fight. A proper movie of this throwdown seems like something we all need.

    "Therefore, even though he does some good things throughout, he's just not likable." Hard for you to type, impossible for me to believe. I guess Bruce could have been a real a-hole, but I have never seen ANY proof of this in my life. Every interview, every behind-the-scenes feature...Lee appears to be the most likable dude on the planet.

    F this noise.

    1. F this noise, indeed. It's just a mess of a movie. As far as Bruce is concerned, I've heard reports before that he rubbed some people the wrong way, but here he's pretty much a straight up douche bag.