I guess it’s going to be pretty pointless to politely request to not be hung for the statement I’m about to say, so I’ll just take a quick moment to say a Hail Mary and y’all can tear me apart as you see fit.
Okay… I’ve never seen a Bruce Lee movie before. Yeah, it’s bloody true. To be honest, especially for me, such a statement doesn’t make any sense. I love action films and I love martial arts films. But so few are made these days that I guess I just never got into that particular subgenre. That’s not to say that I haven’t seen any martial arts films. I saw ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (2003) and IP MAN (2008) and IP MAN 2 (2010), as well as a few Jet Li and Jackie Chan American films, which may or may not count, but I do enjoy the simplicity and special effects-free punching and kicking. So when names like Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen crop up, I do get legit excited. But again, anything with Bruce Lee, I’m a blank. Never seen any of his films before his passing and it bums me out.
Well, it looks like I won’t be able to avoid it any longer… sort of. I know it’s just a biopic, but I know nothing about this fight and what makes it so controversial, so not only am I going to get a taste of something resembling Bruce Lee, but I’m also going to get educated about his life. I’m probably misinterpreting everything from the trailer, but Bruce Lee almost looks like he’s part of a gang or something and he enters a fighting tournament where he gets into a fight with another master and… it’s controversial for some reason. It looks fun enough, I guess. Won’t know until it comes out.
Here’s the cast. Starring, we have Philip Ng (known for unknown and foreign projects) and Yu Xia (known for unknown and foreign projects). In support, we have Billy Magnussen (INGRID GOES WEST , BRIDGE OF SPIES , and INTO THE WOODS ) and Terry Chen (TV shows THE EXPANSE [2015 – ongoing], VAN HELSING [2016 – ongoing], and CONTINUUM [2012 – 2015]).
Now for the crew. Directing is George Nolfi, known for THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011). Co-writing the script, we have Stephen J. Rivele (upcoming films BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY  and A STAR IS BORN ) and Christopher Wilkinson (ALI ). Co-composing the score are Reza Safinia and H. Scott Salinas, both known for unknown projects, documentaries, and short films. Finally, the cinematographer is Amir Mokri, known for PIXELS (2015), MAN OF STEEL (2013), and COYOTE UGLY (2000).
Overall, not super excited, but interested.
This is my honest opinion of: BIRTH OF THE DRAGON
Set in San Francisco, circa 1964. Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) is a kung fu teacher on the rise in Hollywood, respected among his students. Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) is a Shaolin Monk who is on a pilgrimage to atone for a terrible decision he made. As tensions rise between Bruce and Wong, leading up to a fight between them, Bruce’s student Steve (Billy Magnussen) meets a young Chinese woman named Xiulan (Jinjing Qu), who is a servant paying off a debt for being smuggled into America, and seeks to free her from her servitude.
Objectively speaking, I don’t think it’s a good movie, but it’s not wholly incompetent.
Let’s start with the good. For one thing, the acting is pretty solid, particularly with Xia. I have no problems with believing him to be a monk searching for redemption. I think there was a ton of subtlety to his performance, making him the best character in the movie, in my opinion, or at least the most compelling.
The fight scenes were actually really well done and entertaining. High energy, hard-hitting, especially that climactic fight when Bruce and Wong invade the building with the slave girls. Hell, there’s even downright hilarious moments. Like while Bruce is taking on the bulk of the henchmen, every so often a lone goon tries to take on Wong, only to get his ass quickly beaten.
But now for the negatives.
I didn’t like Ng’s portrayal of Bruce Lee. Let me be clear, the man’s not a bad actor, and the man isn’t technically bad here. But I have to question, was Bruce Lee this obnoxious in real life? Was he so unfiltered with his perception of himself that he was borderline unlikable? I guess that would make sense, considering that this movie states that because of Lee’s fight with Wong, he changed his fighting style and developed Jeet Kun Do. But… still, was he this much of a diva?
But fine, if this was the biggest problem with the movie, it’d be downright good. The cardinal sin of the film, it’s horrendously unfocused. What does this movie make you think it’s about? All the marketing says it’s about the controversial fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. But… this film is barely about that. No, this movie is also about white guy Steve, who fell in love with the cute Chinese girl and wants to free her from her life. There is nothing compelling about Steve’s relationship with Xiulan. They talked outside of the restaurant where she worked, he spoke bad Chinese, taught her how to swing a baseball bat, and suddenly, audiences are expected to accept this? The obvious question someone might have is, “What does this have to do with Bruce versus Wong?” An excellent question. But never mind their relationship, Steve is a terrible character because he’s such a whiny little bitch. If he’s not worrying about Xiulan, he’s constantly getting in the business of both Bruce and Wong, telling them how they should be living their lives and how their way of thinking is so foreign. He has no sense of respect, despite the movie trying to convince us that he does, he constantly butts heads with them, and complains how they don’t want to get involved in matters that don’t involve them. This behavior would be more appropriate for a five-year-old, not a dude in his late twenties, or early thirties. And this is who the movie centers on!
Even when we do get to what this movie advertises so much, even that isn’t done very well! For one thing, Bruce is utterly convinced that Wong came to America to dismantle everything that Bruce was building up. And yet, Wong never pays him a visit and even admits that this isn’t why he’s in San Francisco. But Bruce is obsessed with challenging Wong to a fight, even when he admits to Bruce that he’s not interested. Okay, problem solved! But Bruce keeps pushing it, so of course they end up fighting, but the motivation behind it seems more like, “Fine, Bruce! I’ll fight you! Just shut the hell up!” Jesus, and we gave Batman and Superman a hard time? Even when their fight approaches, this movie’s marketing is all about how “controversial” it was. But… what was controversial about it? This movie never explicitly says. Was it because people were betting on who would win? That’s seems pretty standard in sports. Was it because no one truly agreed on who won the fight, causing the winnings to be frozen in place until one of the fighters admitted defeat? Again, it seemed like this only concerned shady underground gangsters. How is this any more controversial than anything else that they do? Were common folks betting on this fight too? Where was that shown in the movie? Nothing about this fight is truly explained! While I do like how there was no clear-cut winner in the respective fighters’ eyes, this fight is only ten minutes long and neither the build up to, nor the repercussions from the fight in question really make a huge difference to the story. Nothing about Steve and his story connects to what Bruce and Wong are doing, and hell, even Bruce and Wong’s shit never connects very well.
Is this movie good? No. But is it god-awful? I don’t think so, but you’ll never hear me argue with anyone who thinks it is. It’s unfocused and horribly written, but it’s not devoid of fun action and some decent performances, not that it saves it much. I’d say if you don’t see this, don’t feel bad. It’s not good. But if you have a passing curiosity, wait for it to stream or make it a rental at best. But even then, I don’t recommend it. I can’t imagine many people liking it. I think I’d rather have watched an actual Bruce Lee movie.
My honest rating for BIRTH OF THE DRAGON: a weak 3/5