24th Feb2018

‘Birth of the Dragon’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Billy Magnussen, Philip Ng, Xia Yu, Qu Jingjing, Jin Xing, Simon Yin, Van Ness Wu, Ron Yuan, Terry Chen | Written by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson | Directed by George Nolfi


Directed by George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau), this account of a life-changing real-life fight between kung fu superstar-in-waiting Bruce Lee and martial arts grandmaster Wong Jack Man is less a of biopic and more of a fictionalisation based on a true story. Taken on those terms, it’s a lot of fun, though it’s likely to frustrate Bruce Lee aficionados looking for a more faithful approach.

The story begins in San Francisco in 1964, where a not-yet-famous Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) is teaching martial arts and focusing on becoming a superstar. When Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) arrives in San Francisco, Lee is rattled by his presence and challenges him to a duel, believing that the martial arts grandmaster resents him teaching kung fu to Westerners. Meanwhile, one of Lee’s students, Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) befriends Wong Jack Man and acts as a liaison between the two men. At the same time, Steve falls in love with a Chinese waitress (Qu Jingjing) and asks his new friend to help him free her from the clutches of Chinese gangster boss Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing).

Philip Ng, himself a skilled martial artist and fight choreographer, is a joy to watch as Lee, capturing the actor’s distinctive speech patterns, his swagger and his balletic movements – he even pulls off the iconic haircut. In return, Xia Yu presents an intriguing contrast, playing Man as calm, soft-spoken and centred where Lee is often cocky and arrogant.

Birth of the Dragon has drawn a certain amount of criticism for its focus on Steve as a central character and it’s perhaps a little sad that the producers felt they needed a white audience surrogate, but Magnussen is a likeable actor and his presence helps to establish a useful balance between the two leads. The script is also careful to ensure that he doesn’t pull focus too much in the fight department – he’s still a heroic figure, but more for his heart being in the right place than his fighting ability (i.e. he gets beaten up a lot).

Ultimately, a film like this stands or falls on the quality of its fight scenes and in that department, Birth of the Dragon doesn’t disappoint. The visual difference in the two men’s fighting styles (Lee shirtless and in black trousers, Man in flowing yellow robes) makes for an entertaining central duel, but the real fun comes later, when the two men team up to take on the Chinese underworld and fight their way through a house of gangsters. That extended sequence is worth the price of admission alone, combining laugh-out-loud humour, clever direction, exciting martial arts action and appealing character moments – even the way the two men walk together is cool.

That said, if you’re a Bruce Lee fan (or a Wong Jack Man fan) looking for insightful detail about the real-life duel, you’re likely to be disappointed. The captions assert that Lee changed his fighting style after the fight and thereby changed the history of martial arts forever, but the script never really addresses that, instead settling for a more simplistic message about Lee learning to temper his arrogance. Similarly, the film doesn’t offer any further clarity on the fight’s real-life outcome, cleverly using the fictionalised gangland element to find a diplomatic way around deciding who actually won the fight.

Despite its various compromises, Birth of the Dragon remains an entertaining and well acted picture, enlivened by exciting fight scenes, likeable characters and a pair of terrific central performances. Worth seeing.

*** 3/5

Birth of the Dragon is in UK cinemas now.

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