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With: Philip Wan-Lung Ng, Xia Yu, Jin Xing, Billy Magnussen, Jingjing Qu, Simon Yin
Written by: Christopher Wilkinson, Stephen J. Rivele, based on an article by Michael Dorgan
Directed by: George Nolfi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for martial arts violence, language and thematic elements
Language: English, Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 89
Date: 08/25/2017

Birth of the Dragon (2017)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Not Enough Leeway

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Feeling like a cheap, quickie effort, this story of Bruce Lee's early days features some good moments, but makes the fatal mistake of inserting a white character to drive the plot and get the girl.

In Birth of the Dragon, it's 1964 in San Francisco, and kung fu phenomenon Bruce Lee (Philip Wan-Lung Ng) hasn't yet broken into movies or TV, but is well-known and beloved by his students, despite his youthful pride and arrogance. In China, Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) nearly kills a man during a martial arts demonstration and comes to San Francisco to heal his soul by washing dishes in a restaurant.

One of Lee's students, Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) befriends the monk, and begins to see his ways of teaching as more centered than Lee's. At the same time, Steve falls for a pretty girl (Jingjing Qu) being held prisoner by a Chinatown triad. He is given a deal; if he can persuade Bruce Lee to fight the monk, then the girl will be freed. The two masters agree to the fight, but the outcome won't be quite what anyone expected.

The martial arts scenes are not uniformly terrible; they are blessed with choreography by the great Corey Yuen. Actor Philip Wan-Lung Ng does a reasonable job imitating Lee, and Xia Yu's Wong Jack Man is appealing, but that's about all Birth of the Dragon does right. It's mostly a hack job, unworthy of its legendary subject.

White director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) apparently saw no problem with simplifying and sidelining the Asian characters in favor of a boring white one, whose romantic arc with an Asian woman is somewhat silly. (At the same time, though the movie mentions Bruce Lee's white wife, Linda, she is never anywhere to be seen!) Worse, Lee's supposed character arc begins by showing the icon as arrogant and short-sighted, and then his redemption, which is mentioned, is not shown and does not really click.

Lee's many fans will surely be disappointed (or even insulted) by this; they will be better served by watching the real McCoy in Enter the Dragon, or Chan Kwok-Kwan's superior portrayal of Lee in Ip Man 3, or, frankly, just about anything else.

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