Image: Yu Xia and Philip Ng in Birth of the Dragon © Photo by James Dittiger [Source: IMDB]
Birth of The Dragon as the name or trailer might suggest is the beginnings of the legend that is Bruce Lee; or at least it should have been, instead this film’s main plot hinges on two elements, a half-strung romance tale and the supposed fight that happened between Bruce Lee and Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man. It is in-between these two plot lines that the film attempts to balance but instead, it shows poor technique and little strength in its storytelling.
Director: George Nolfi. Starring: Billy Magnussen, Yu Xia, Phillip Ng [12A]
The most prominent glaring problem with Birth of The Dragon is the fact that Bruce Lee is not the focus here, instead, the film follows a student of his as he develops a crush on a girl held captive by the local mob and his admiration for Wong Jack Man as a mentor. It’s baffling that this is marketed as a Bruce Lee film at all, it plays out like we are following a guy working at the Daily Planet while Superman hangs around in the background, it’s useless, wasted potential, we came to see Bruce Lee. The main character is not interesting at all, vacant and lifeless with just as much of a half-baked romance story which suggests after one interaction this character is willing to risk his life to save the girl.
It does serve the purpose of bringing the fight of Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee together, and this plotline does work, Phillip Ng plays a slightly exaggerated Bruce Lee but it works very well capturing mannerisms and techniques Lee used in his films and clearly has a lot of fun with the character – for the little time he is given. Yu Xia plays his counterpart very well also as the humbled Shaolin monk who seeks peace rather than violence, it’s a story that unfolds well as the monk only seeks to humble Lee in an effort to change his arrogance so that Lee’s future in bringing Hong Kong to the world is more refined and graceful. Watching the arc of Bruce Lee turn from arrogant and graceless fighter humbled in his challenging of a master is well constructed but does not pay off meaningfully as such little devotion is given towards it. Bruce Lee is a background character in his own story.
The lack of focus and attention is the films main problem as highlighted further through its production design, with very little about the setting, mise-en-scene or look of the film suggesting it is set in the 1960s. Furthermore is the camera work doing little liven the action, static shots and long wides do little to increase the tenacity of fights which are done well for the most part, particularly is the showdown between Lee and Jack Man which is thoroughly gripping and is full of homages and references to Lee’s films and fighting styles. Sadly, this is neither treated with the gravitas it should have been and leaves the climaxing fights feeling lacklustre in comparison.
Birth of The Dragon wastes a lot of potential in its storytelling as well as its actors, well-constructed fight scenes are lacklustre at best through the uninspired direction and paling in comparison to the main event which sadly doesn’t pay off as well as it should have. With its little focus and lack of impact, it tells a bland and lifeless story that neglects the most crucial element of the film, Bruce Lee.