Release Date: August 24, 2017
Director: George Nolfi
Runtime: 89 Minutes
It says a lot about a biopic when, in the midst of watching, you are convinced that you are learning nothing about its subject. It speaks volumes when that subject is a veritable legend of cinema whose significance and influence have only intensified in the decades after his passing.
Birth of the Dragon, the latest from the laughably incompetent WWE Studios (yes, that WWE), is the definitive open-and-shut case, proving once and for all that that white creatives of the western world should stay far away from martial arts and even further from legends of the craft. It’s tortuous. Not only a disservice to the cinematic legacy of Bruce Lee, but it’s practically an insult to his memory as a teacher and a philosopher who revolutionized the popularity of martial arts through his skill and wisdom.
Pinpointing where this misguided attempt to capture the historical moment when Lee became the “The Dragon” of legend can be boiled down to the fact that Lee is not the star of it. For reasons as insulting as they are baffling, director George Nolfi and screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson Stephen J. Rivele (who’ve created a frankly impressive cottage industry for themselves penning mediocre biopics with the likes of Pawn Sacrifice, Miles Ahead and All Eyez on Me) chose to focalize a pivotal moment in Bruce Lee’s career through the viewpoint of a bland Caucasian protagonist, played by Billy Magnussen whose charisma is comparable to a soggy fortune cookie.
This is far from the dramatization of Lee’s controversial fight with shaolin master Wong Jack Man, which historically taught him the limits of his skills and pushed him to greater discipline. Instead, this film dulls the significance of history to focus on the (fictional) white student whose moral fortitude convinced Lee to change his ways and partner with Wong Jack Man to free his girlfriend from indentured servitude.
For the majority of the film, Philip Ng as Lee is positioned confusingly as the villain whose overdone rock star arrogance and megalomania not only make him an ahistorical mockery of the real Lee’s character, but also offers no insight to who “The Dragon” really was. While Ng may look the part and is an accomplished martial artist in his own right, the insipid dialogue he is forced to regurgitate leaves him with little to go on. As legends go, I would have hoped Lee had more to impart than constant reiterations of how he “came from the streets” and his “badassery” being beyond reproach. This is Bruce Lee portrayed with the snark and hollow swagger of a middling Marvel protagonist.
None of that matters, however, because, for the insufferably, meandering bulk of the film, Birth of the Dragon is preoccupied with the romantic verbiage of Steve the White Guy and his Chinese girlfriend. Even if this plot, which unceremoniously wrestles the spotlight away from Lee, was held up by actors who had believable chemistry, it would still be near impossible to care.
The script’s priorities are so out of whack with one another that it believed a western audience would be infinitely more entertained by this airless romance taking up space in the Bruce Lee biopic. Criminally, Lee and his climactic fight against Wong Jack Man is rendered as nothing more than a plotpoint in Steve’s story.
Speaking of fights, Birth of the Dragon’s method of capturing the craft that made Lee internationally renowned is horrendously prosaic. Shot much like your standard action fare, the fights that are meant to convey why Lee was such a unique talent are so overstuffed with cuts, angles and visual effects that it makes his martial arts look like something any action star would be capable of. In Enter the Dragon, the camera was allowed to rest and let Lee’s natural physicality and practiced choreography essentially do all the talking. Even with some impressive choreography, Birth of the Dragon fails on all accounts to communicate to an audience why they should marvel at what he is performing.
Even the most uninitiated into the western cult of Bruce Lee will know they are being fed the cribbed version of history with all the pomp and circumstance of a made-for-TV movie. A complete failure as a biopic, which never remotely gets close to understanding its enigmatic subject, Birth of the Dragon is an indolent martial arts film that strives for greater importance by merely associating itself with a legend of the genre. Bruce Lee may have come to prominence in America, but Nolfi’s film proves it is most certainly not up to westerners to tell his story.