REVIEW: 'Birth of the Dragon', a lively and earnest Bruce Lee biopic


Is  historical accuracy really that important in a biographical movie? That might sound counter-intuitive, since we’re talking about depicting the life of a real person. Wouldn’t an exhaustively researched script and a perfect lookalike in the lead role be exactly what any filmmaker would strive for in a biopic?

The new film Birth of the Dragon makes the case for a different approach, and does so persuasively, even if it’s not one hundred percent successful. Instead, director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) and his team seem to be chasing a faithfulness to the spirit, and not the factual minutiae of their subject: the martial artist, actor and philosopher Bruce Lee. The film seems to acknowledge that it’s okay to fudge some factual details here and there, as long as it conveys two things: the effects (emotional, spiritual, bone-crunchingly physical) Lee had on those around him, and some damn fine entertainment.

Rather than position Lee as the main character, we’re introduced to him via a drifter named Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen), who finds himself training with a young Lee (Philip Ng) at his kung fu school in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the mid-60s. McKee is just a mixed-up guy looking for some structure, and Lee offers him a chance to develop mental and physical discipline. The experience also offers McKee an entry point into an adoptive community, the neighbourhood of Chinese immigrants in the city.

Lee’s openness to teaching a new, street-smart version of kung fu (and sharing the techniques with non-Chinese) runs afoul of the masters at the Shaolin Temple in China. They dispatch a troubled monk named Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) to investigate Lee. As the tensions between the two escalate, McKee sees an opportunity to save his girlfriend (who’s indentured to a local crime family) by organizing a secret showdown between Wong and Lee - an event based on a real-life fight whose outcome is still disputed today.

Without any agreement on the winner, the filmmakers are free to speculate. For Nolfi and his screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele, they see it as a chance to make the fight about more than martial arts principles. They can have a Hollywood-ready story about star-crossed lovers, and frame it as the uplifting result of Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man going head-to-head. It’s not a bad idea, but it is a little too familiar, especially in the context of the more mature ideas about mental fitness and cultural exchange that the characters bring up from time to time.

One of the outcomes of Wong and Lee's fight is freedom for Xiulan (Jingjing Qu).

The story may not center on Lee, but it shows the positive influence he had as a teacher and a leader in the American-Chinese community. It narrows down the examination of his legacy without becoming distracted by his personal life or his career successes with The Green Hornet, The Way of the Dragon and (posthumously) Enter the Dragon.

In Philip Ng, the filmmakers have found a skilled martial artist who can carry his action scenes, but also bring Lee’s uniquely playful, cocky demeanor back to the big screen. Some of the best jokes in the film rely on Ng’s knowing line delivery and charisma, proving that he wasn’t hired to merely flip through the air and grin.

While the combat choreography in the film is solid overall, the only fight that ended up being a bit of letdown was actually the one that the film spends most of its time building up to: the secret showdown between Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee. We’re meant to see how both Wong and Lee learn the pitfalls of their respective attitudes about kung fu over the course of the fight. Wong is incredibly reserved, but lashes out when pushed too far, while Lee is overconfident and wastes energy peppering his opponent with attacks. There are flashes of skillful cinematography and editing choices, but there are too many thematic and technical ideas at play in the scene, and it doesn't leave you as awed by the two combatants as it should.

However, when the two enemies team up to take on the Chinatown gang, the film really comes to life. There's a strong combo of humour and fighting technique that works as an effective pay-off to the drama between Wong and Lee in the preceding scenes. It's unfortunate that we have to wait until the final 15 minutes of the film to see this material; the scene is good enough that it makes you want to see some sort of Netflix kung fu show featuring these two characters (as far-fetched as it may sound).

My only lingering question is how Nolfi came to the project - is he approaching the film as a journeyman, completing a job to allow him to pursue a passion project, or is he legitimately drawn to Bruce Lee's legend? With The Adjustment Bureau as the only other feature on his resumé, there’s not enough evidence yet to figure out what characterizes Nolfi as a director. We may have to see what he does with a third film to figure out what kind of filmmaker he really is.

Birth of the Dragon may be made from familiar components, but the sum experience is more fun, and oddly more contemplative, than I expected. It’s a film that offers a different approach to a biopic, one that allows its subject to take a step away from the spotlight. It may not offer a searching, intimate portrait of Bruce Lee, but it does make you want to dive into a kung fu movie marathon.

Birth of the Dragon gets three stars out of four.

Three Stars

Have you seen this new Bruce Lee biopic yet? If so, what did you think? Is it a fitting dramatization of the early years of a legend? Or does it take too many liberties and marginalize its subject? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!