Director: George Nolfi
Script: Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson
Cast: Philip Wan-Lung Ng, Xia Yu, Jin Xing, Qu Jingjing, Ron Yuan, Terry Chen, Vanness Wu, Billy Magnussen
Running time: 96 minutes
In 1964, before he became a global martial arts superstar, Bruce Lee ran a small dojo in San Francisco where, somewhat unusually, he taught Kung Fu to non-Chinese folk, which was frowned upon back in mainland China. This film dramatizes what might have happened when a Shaolin Kung Fu Master, called Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu), arrived in San Francisco and ended up having the mother of all fights with Bruce Lee (Philip Wan-Lung Ng).
Those expecting some kind of martial arts fight fest could be disappointed with Birth of the Dragon since it tends to focus less on Bruce Lee and more on one of his students, Steve McKee (actually Steve McQueen in real-life), and his infatuation with one of the Chinese waitresses who works for a local Triad boss, Auntie Blossom. Well, when I say: ‘works for’, I mean she is an illegal immigrant who’s being used for slave labour! It’s actually Steve (played here by Billy Magnussen) who eventually brings Bruce and Wong Jack Man together, and they end up having a mega-scrap because of the situation Steve has got himself into with the Triads over the young lady he’s besotted with.
In between the romantic main plot, and one involving another of Lee’s students with a gambling problem, there are training sessions, and short-lived fights here and there, but the viewer is soon itching for the main event to kick-off, and when it does it’s definitely worth waiting for. Having said that, the best fight action is saved until last when the two rivals end up taking on the might of the Triad gang to help a bruised and battered Steve out, and to free his girlfriend.
Apart from the use of some strange shots and edits here and there, the fight scenes are put together well, and, for the most part, come across as being both realistic and exciting. But the fight action is second to the dramatic character arcs that play out throughout the film, with Lee learning to be less arrogant and more soulful in his approach to martial arts and Wong Jack Man becoming more accepting of how martial arts might be shared with the world at large and not just being kept as the privileged preserve of the Chinese.
The performances are generally excellent, especially the two lead Chinese masters. Philip Ng, for example, really captures the tics and traits of Bruce Lee, and Xia Yu is extremely likable as the conflicted Wong Jack Man.
The film also makes use of some excellent locations, both in China and in San Francisco, and the music score adds extra ‘colour’ and ‘depth’ to the activities on screen.
For those, like myself, who are fascinated by the life and works of the legend that is Bruce Lee, this is yet another must watch. However, it’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is, and will surely disappoint a fair few fight fans who might be expecting more ‘kapow’ for their buck…
Birth of the Dragon is being distributed by Altitude on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital download. The only extra on the review disc was an interview with lead actor Philip Ng (5.5 mins), which sees the very sharply-dressed fighter talking about his preparation for the role and how he sees the final movie as an entertaining kung Fu film with soul. It turns out that the actor who plays Wong Jack Man had to train from scratch for the physical side of his performance, as he’s not a martial artist.