The late great martial artist and legendary dynamo Bruce Lee has been spotlighted in countless biopics detailing the iconic fighter’s trials and tribulations as an international movie star. Both casual and fanatical fans of the crafty martial arts superstar can certainly boast their knowledge of the chiseled, one-man wrecking crew that challenged global movie audiences with imaginative, stylistic fighting techniques and philosophies only familiar to traditional Far East folklore.
In Birth of the Dragon director George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”) serves up his fictional account of a notable 1964 showdown pitting the immensely gifted Oakland-based martial arts instructor Bruce Lee (Philip Ng, “The Man from Macau”) against Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia, “Romance Out of the Blue”), a visiting (and disgraced) Shaolin monk now making his home in San Francisco. The reason for these men to butt heads stems from the fact that Lee (before his meteoric rise to super-stardom in motion pictures) dared to cater to Westerners by teaching them the sacred intricacies of martial arts — something of a major concern to Wong (and other traditionalists).
Additionally, the dynamics between Lee and Wong is observed on the sidelines by a Caucasian martial arts student named Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen, “Bridge of Spies”) whose devotion to the sparring 24-year old instructor is only hampered by his blinding attraction to a vulnerable Chinatown waitress (Qu Jingjing) at the mercy of her seedy employer (Xing Jin) looking for payback.
Nolfi and screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele (both writers on “Pawn Sacrifice”) seek to tap into the mystique of the highly heralded martial arts match-up between the two explosive combatants, but the film feels inexplicably stiff as it fails to totally capture the spirit of the confrontation between the cocky but charismatic Lee and cynical provocateur Wong. Furthermore, the legendary Lee acts as a mere afterthought in a sluggish narrative bogged down by a fictitious, third-rate star-crossed romance.
Why Nolfi and team saw the need to prop up a bland and completely made-up character like Steve McKee (possibly a disguised take off on box office bad boy Steve McQueen) and his want for an Asian damsel-in-distress over an aggressively flashy Bruce Lee (and to a lesser extent Wong) is inexplicable. Especially when one considers the magnitude of the face-off and that there were few that witnessed this epic showcase of old-world versus new-world techniques and teachings (it took place in a warehouse located in the background of the Golden Gate Bridge). Even to this day there is still a question of who actually prevailed in this underground session of fists of fury.
Sadly, Birth of the Dragon does not shed any considerable revelations on the aura of Bruce Lee nor does it remotely offer any refreshing insights into the man who capitalized on the fight to build a clientele of movie stars for his school and to himself break into TV (“The Green Hornet”) and film (“Fist of Fury,” “Game of Death,” “Enter the Dragon,” among others). Ng is engaging as the martial arts guru (although his portrayal and likeness falls short of those set forth by Jason Scott Lee in 1993’s “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”) as he does everything he can to breathe spirit into the high-kicking hotshot. Xia’s Wong makes for an intriguing foil as his preservation for the strict, homegrown martial arts practices is realized. Magnussen’s McKee “Don Juan wannabe,” however, is the decidedly weak link that cripples the movie’s credibility and shortchanges the premise at large.
There is simply no excuse for any full feature vehicle that aims to echo the magnetism of the boisterous Bruce Lee to come off as flat and flavorless as Birth of the Dragon.