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Movie Review 'Birth of the Dragon'

Shameful Bruce Lee rip off in theaters now.

By Sean PatrickPublished 6 years ago 5 min read

Birth of the Dragon has been marketed as the story of Bruce Lee learning to grow and become more disciplined, humble, and dedicated to his craft after being confronted by a famed Shaolin Master named Wong Jack Man. Instead, Birth of the Dragon is a ludicrously misguided combination of faux-history and one of the worst conceived Bruce Lee movies in history. It's as bad as the films that inserted old Bruce Lee footage after his death into different movies that were then marketed as Bruce Lee movies.

Birth of the Dragon was directed by George Nolfi who acquits himself well as a visual stylist but as a writer he fails to understand why this movie should not have been made in the first place. The story is based off an ungodly awful, mostly apocryphal story in a 1980 Kung Fu magazine. The writer of that story brings together three separate accounts of a fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man and it is written in a style that is reminiscent of the worst of modern internet writing. Supposed professional writers dedicate themselves to writing about information in other people’s articles, stealing without stealing what others wrote as if by stealing from multiple other sources you’ve somehow written your own article.

That is not exactly the best place to begin an artistic endeavor but then things get so much worse from there. The idea is supposed to be about this legendary 1964 fight between two Kung Fu masters that forever changed how Bruce Lee used Kung Fu, creating his legendary Jeet Kune Do style. However, because the writers, director, producers, and distributors apparently felt that mass audiences wouldn’t take to a story about Asian Americans, even if one of them is portraying BRUCE LEE(!!!!!!) we get an entirely invented character named Steve McKee who is so terribly portrayed by Billy Magnusson that I genuinely felt sorry for the young man that this performance is preserved on screen.

Magnusson is awful because his role is so incredibly stock and was built solely for the purpose of creating a character that dumb white audiences could relate to. This is the kind of quietly insidious racial politicking that we as critics and audiences have been allowing Hollywood to get away with for far too long and frankly I am done. I recently wrote about a wonderful film called Wind River which shone a different kind of light on this type of casting. That film cast white movie stars because it had an urgent cry of a story to tell and needed to use white movie stars as a megaphone for an important purpose.

The casting of Magnusson in Birth of the Dragon has no such purpose. It assumes an audience filled with racist white people who could not possibly relate to a story about two Chinese characters having a fight over honor and self-discovery. Never mind that one of the characters is an approximation of one of the most famous and revered Chinese celebrities of all time, we must appeal to stupid racist white people for this to be a truly hit movie.

If this weren’t an ugly enough aspect, the filmmakers find a way to compound the racism with other bad choices. The character of Steve McKee is employed not just as the racist audience surrogate, he’s also the vehicle for Birth of the Dragon to turn from a story about two men and their battle of wills over culture and history into one of those awful, knock-off movies made after Bruce Lee died. Birth of the Dragon ends with Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man teaming up to beat down the Chinese gangster triad to save a group of Chinese women from indentured servitude.

Yes, I am aware that this plot exists so that we can get some of the Bruce Lee we want, the ass-kicking Enter the Dragon Bruce Lee womping henchmen left and right while giving his trademark screams but it is all so bad. Don’t get me wrong, Phillip Ng, who portrays Lee, does a wonderful job of capturing the movie version of Lee we remember and giving hints of the real man but this forced, silly plot tacked onto the story of this legendary fight is so silly that it renders the whole film an impossible, improbable ludicrousness.

What they might have done with Birth of the Dragon was go with the story as Wong Jack Man tells it according to that still awful article. Angry that Bruce Lee was teaching Kung Fu in America, Wong wanted to fight Bruce Lee to teach him a lesson about how style and technique isn’t enough, that true Kung Fu was as much spiritual as physical. Lee meanwhile, was arrogant, paranoid and ambitious. He was using this ancient art as a vehicle for stardom and needed the lesson that Wong Jack Man set out to give him.

In that paragraph, you have all of the drama you need to make a great movie. There is a significant emotional conflict there. This clash of the ancient and the modern, of the humble and the arrogant, each man with something to prove to the other. That is why this fight, that apparently did really happen in San Francisco, in 1964 in front of a crowd of only 12 to 15 onlookers with no rules, is so wonderfully, mysteriously iconic. To try and turn that into something typical and audience friendly instead of exploring the human center of the fight is a damn crime. For that, I cannot condemn Birth of the Dragon enough.


About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. I am a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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