Film Review: Birth of the Dragon

Modest, effective account of a rivalry early in Bruce Lee's career.
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Slipping into theatres almost unannounced, Birth of the Dragon is a surprisingly layered account of martial-arts superstar Bruce Lee's encounter with Shaolin master Wong Jack Man. Doggedly avoiding expectations, the movie instead examines the whole rationale behind kung fu.

In 1964, Bruce Lee (played convincingly by Philip Wan-lung Ng) had yet to establish himself in the U.S. Running a threadbare kung fu academy in San Francisco's Chinatown, he is still struggling to break into movies and TV. This is a different Lee than moviegoers might know. A strutting peacock, he's more interested in money and fame than in preserving his wing chun heritage.

Shaolin monk and champion martial artist Wong Jack Man (a quiet, contained Xia Yu) has fled China for San Francisco after pride and anger led him to injure an opponent. Washing dishes in a Chinatown restaurant as penance, he resists efforts to fight Lee or even accept students.

Most of Birth of the Dragon is told from Steve McKee's (Billy Magnussen) point of view. As first Lee's student, the Indiana native is intrigued by Wong's more contemplative approach to martial arts. (Like actor Steve McQueen, who studied with Lee, McKee rides a motorcycle.) McKee's budding romance with Xiulan Quan (Qu Jingjing), essentially a slave to gang leader Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing), is the catalyst for the eventual showdown between Wong and Lee.

Despite a small budget, director George Nolfi builds a real world, a cold, corrupt Chinatown of tough, low-paying jobs. These characters don't see a better future and don't expect much help beating poverty. And yet there's a restraint to Nolfi's approach, an effort to see past the personas the characters have invented for themselves.

The screenplay by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson has all the familiar tropes of kung fu movies—training sequences, threats, throwdowns, post-fight recoveries—but they don't play out like most B-movies. The fights at first are awkward, with jerky, uneven pacing. And on some levels the big fight disappoints everyone involved—except viewers, who can sense how momentous the occasion is. Because in a few years Lee would set new standards for kung fu on film, based in part on what Wong taught him.

Birth of the Dragon is casual with facts, and the politically correct may be offended that a Caucasian plays such a significant role in the story. But McKee's character lets the filmmakers examine issues that Lee and Wong would never have discussed themselves. (He's also a hopeless student and fighter.) According to Birth of the Dragon, Wong's philosophy had a real impact on Lee. Whether that's true or not is open to debate, but it's a theory that's worth arguing.

The expert action choreography in Birth of the Dragon is by Corey Yuen, one of the world's best. The movie's final battle is a textbook example of tension and release.

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