Birth of the Dragon [Review by Haus]
Birth of the Dragon weaves a strange, anachronistic, and ultimately limp story around a one-off 1960s fight between young Bruce Lee, who was at the time teaching Kung Fu to locals in San Francisco, and the perfectly-named Wong Jack Man, an unflappable papaya-robed Shaolin master. While this battle of titans, we’re told, actually happened, I’d wager that the rest of this movie most certainly did not.
Which is probably a good thing. Besides struggling under a decidedly direct-to-streaming feel, Birth of the Dragon curiously paints its alleged hero — the legendary Lee, played by Philip Wan-Lung Ng — as a self-important and preening side-note, a two-dimensional braggart whose main contribution is teasing his students and brooding in a just-so little clapboard office about how best to display his greatness. Lee himself may actually have been this way for all I know, but even so he probably deserved to at least play the leading role in what’s ostensibly his own picture.
Alas, he’s relegated to the sidelines in favor of Billy Magnussen — you’ll remember his brief stint as one of the bro-tastic mortgage brokers in The Big Short — who plays Steve McKee, one of Lee’s students. McKee improbably makes friends with Wong Jack Man, the swift-kicking monk who’s visiting Fog City to wash dishes (stay with me), and even more improbably wanders into a Westworld-worthy meet cute with a comely Chinese waitress, Xiulan Quan (Qu Jingjing). She’s captive, a work-slave to evil Chinatown masters (who might as well be greeted with gong sounds when they come on screen) and forbidden to learn English. McKee and Quan nonetheless tiptoe off to make lovey-eyes, and McKee soon finds himself struggling with his own Eloisa and Abelard meets West Side Story meets golden-age gangster movie. McKee’s struggle to free Quan from captivity becomes the central arc about which Bruce Lee, Wong Jack Man, and a little lazy Susan of secondary characters orbit, twinkling only rarely.
This hokey 1960s Chinatown love story is one kind of thing, but what I don’t understand is why it’s central to a movie purportedly about Bruce Lee. And while I don’t feel fully equipped to complain on this point, I have a feeling this film won’t be met with applause for its portrayals of Chinese culture.
The Wong-Lee fight does happen, of course, and it’s visually interesting if a tad thematically schizoid. Ng offers some admirable physical mimicry as Lee, though screenwriters Steven Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (both Oscar-nommed for Nixon) give the actor little else to do. Xia Yu though is like Jet Li on quaaludes, a measured, composed, and soothing Wong Jack Man who certainly delivers in the Kung Fu department. The film dabbles both in smokey mysticism (“if I lose, then I have won” type stuff) and also in sixties slapstick Kung Fu camp. (“These stairs go nowhere!” — “Like your style.”)
Admittedly, Birth of the Dragon does take a sharp turn: if you can Clockwork Orange your way through seventy minutes of near-Valerian-grade dialogue, you’re rewarded with a legitimately wicked fight scene. But is that enough? I’d rather just have seen more Lee.
A final thought: As a Bay Area resident and proud member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, I will say the filmmakers did a decent job recreating mid-sixties SF — but at the same time, they really needn’t have bothered. After all, if you want perfectly preserved black-plated cars and dudes in vintage leather pooping about on fifty year old motorcycles, all you need to do is camp out downtown. No CGI required.
Haus Verdict: A Bruce Lee movie that isn’t; a mean, chalky little jawbreaker with a soft chewy center of sweet, sweet fights.
Birth of the Dragon opens Friday August 25.
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