Birth of the Dragon is not what you think it’s going to be — at least, it’s pretty damned far from anything that I thought it was going to be. Given what little marketing material I had seen prior to screening, I assumed it was going to be a pulpy, low-budget piece of disposable kung fu diversion that might cross into so-bad-it’s-good territory. Boy, was I wrong. Not about the film’s budget or disposability, mind you, but pretty much every other assumption I held was way off base.
I was laboring under the delusion that I was buying a ticket to a movie about Bruce Lee’s legendary fight with Shaolin master Wong Jack Man that would function along the lines of a qausi-factual superhero origin story, something with lots of punching and not much plot. Instead, I got a tepid romance about a cheap Steve McQueen proxy falling for a Chinese indentured servant and inadvertently setting in motion a gang war that is supposed to be resolved by the big fight.
If the logical inconsistencies of a sparring match between two martial arts masters settling a dispute over human trafficking are particularly jarring, they’re nothing compared to the disappointment of the fight scene itself. Not only does the script, from Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, falter in its buildup to the pivotal encounter, director George Nolfi’s staging and stylization are so misguided that I found myself wondering if the guy had ever seen a kung fu movie prior to taking on this project.
There’s really no excuse for this creative team to have performed so poorly, given their level of experience. Rivele and Wilkinson previously penned Nixon (1995), Ali (2001) and Pawn Sacrifice (2014) together, so they should ostensibly know their way around a biopic — even one this heavily fictionalized. While Nolfi’s output has been more limited, he did helm a moderately acceptable thriller with The Adjustment Bureau (2011), so the abject failure of Birth of the Dragon is perplexing, even with the tempered expectations its budgetary constraints would necessitate.
It certainly doesn’t help matters that the cast is uniformly bad, with the possible exception of Xia Yu as Wong Jack Man — although the script really only gives him one note to play. Similarly unidimensional are Billy Magnussen as Steve McKee (explicitly not McQueen, mind you) and Philip Ng as Lee, who seem to be engaged in a grudge match of their own over who can overact the most egregiously. These performances would be cringe-worthy enough even if Ng weren’t playing a caricature of Lee and Magnussen a stereotypical slack-jawed white savior trope — but they are, adding insult to injury.
So how do you make a bad film about Bruce Lee? Apparently, the answer to that riddle is: “make the movie about a random white dude instead.” The third act of Birth shows a faint glimmer of the film I had hoped I’d be getting, but by that point I was so thoroughly disgusted that there was nothing that could’ve redeemed the film in my eyes. Had the film been ninety minutes of Lee and Wong Jack Man talking over tea My Dinner With Andre style, it could scarcely have been further from the action fest I was looking for. If you love Bruce Lee, your time would be better served writing a strongly worded letter to the producers than sitting through Birth of the Dragon. Rated PG-13 for martial arts violence, language and thematic elements. Now Playing at Regal Biltmore Grande