Lacking Soul: Our Review of ‘Birth of the Dragon’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - August 25, 2017
Lacking Soul: Our Review of ‘Birth of the Dragon’

There’s only so many times you can reworking something before you have to let it go…

After debuting at TIFF last year, Birth of the Dragon went through some major retooling (the first draft was actually about his white student and not Bruce Lee) and now while it has improved somewhat this bio pic of the early days of Bruce Lee need a little more soul.

Set in the backdrop that was 1960’s San Francisco we meet young Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) fresh into town looking for a new start in life under the guidance of Master Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) looking to take Kung Fu to new heights and become a star.  However all that doesn’t seem to matter when Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) comes to town looking to see Kung Fu in America and atone for sin he committed in front of the some of the grandmaster’s of his discipline.  The east versus the west in more ways than one, Birth of the Dragon pulls its inspiration from a rumored secret fight between the two men that inspired Bruce Lee to change his style and become the icon that we all know and love today.

Believe it or not but director George Nolfi’s first cut of Birth of the Dragon actually centered around the white kid Steve, thankfully now it at least has its focus right but it still feels a little cold and disjointed in spite of some solid action sequences.

It’s hard to believe that the men who wrote this mess we’re also responsible for films like Ali & Nixon as they drew inspiration for the film from a famous article about the encounter between Lee and Wong Jack Man but it just fills in way too many blanks trying to turn his origin story into something that was pulled out of an old Bruce Lee movie itself.  Granted it’s all kind of fun, but there isn’t a moment when we don’t know that most of what is happening on the screen is probably bullshit.  We all know well enough that bio pics do occasionally have to embellish on the truth to make things entertaining, but this just went too overboard with it all.  The action was solid to be sure but the human drama that Bruce Lee brought to some of his movies just wasn’t there even as it tries to force a subplot about Steve taking on the Triads to free his girlfriends only to have Bruce and Wong Jack Man save his life and help him.

Philip Ng as Bruce just doesn’t have the gravitas or the weight to carry the flick and it isn’t surprising since he wasn’t the focus of the initial cut and there just isn’t enough for him to work with.  Yu Xia as Wong Jack Man admittedly has a better pedigree of performances to draw from and actually succeeds in being the emotional weight of the film in both inspiring Bruce and Steve to be not just better practioners of Kung Fu but better people.  Billy Magnussen thankfully gets pushed to the background in this cut and while that still makes his performance feel out of place and disjointed, it’s still less awkward then the original version.

At the end of the day, Birth of the Dragon wasn’t without some promise as the action was solid and didn’t end up insultingly bad or boring, but it just lacked any kind of genuine spirit or soul and any story about Bruce Lee needs its fair share of that.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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