As August draws to a close and movie fans find themselves trapped between the thrills of Summer Movie Season and the Oscar-caliber powerhouses of the Fall, a bizarre set of in-between films find themselves filtering through the box office. Such is the case with Birth of the Dragon, the latest martial arts-oriented popcorn flick to grace theaters. Based around the iconic figure of Bruce Lee, who played an integral part in making kung fu popular in the West, this movie attempts to pay tribute to his extremely important legacy. Unfortunately, in almost every way possible, it falls short.
The first problem that presents itself in Birth of the Dragon is with its presentation of Bruce Lee (Philip Ng). He is portrayed as almost entirely unlikeable. He is brash, arrogant, violent, and a completely uncompelling hero. Somehow, this works narratively because Lee is not the protagonist of his own movie. Instead, Steve McKee, an entirely fictional character played by Billy Magnussen, takes up the bulk of the film’s screen time. Is his addition beneficial to the overall story of Birth of the Dragon? Well, instead of a hot-headed kung fu master dominating a martial arts film, a weak, poorly-constructed love struck cinematic cliché takes center stage. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Steve McKee is one of 2017’s most disappointing protagonists, overshadowing a compelling narrative with his uninteresting subplot elevated past its welcome.
In Birth, Bruce Lee is a kung fu master who trains young men on the streets of San Francisco in his special style of the martial art. He is driven by an angry, violent mentality that is wrapped up in his trainees’ repetitive chant “kick! ass! kick! ass!” This brute level treatment of the ancient, religiously-rooted lifestyle of kung fu is seen as disrespectful by Wong Jack Man, a world-renowned monk and fighter who is visiting the United States. Steve McKee is caught between the two masters and their ideologies as he also finds himself drawn to a young woman who is trapped within the seedy underbelly of the San Francisco streets. When her safety is threatened, McKee calls on his masters to battle one another in exchange for the freedom of his love.
I am not familiar with the life story of Bruce Lee or the ways in which kung fu became a part of American culture. Therefore, I will be doing my best to judge Birth of the Dragon on the basis of its cinematic value instead of its adherence to historical fact. As the film opens, it blatantly admits that it is not a Bruce Lee biopic, claiming that the story about to be shown is only “inspired by” actual events. On a pure storytelling level, the reduction of a master-level battle between two respected figures in a very serious form of martial arts to a barely-developed love story is an absolute disgrace. Not only is the film’s inciting “relationship” barely given any time to grow – our romantic leads are only seen onscreen together three times for barely as many minutes altogether – but also, the importance of said relationship is given almost more importance than the actual philosophical battle between Lee and Wong. Religious passion versus raw violence within martial arts makes for an intriguing premise. Puppy-love does not.
In the end, it is this constant missed potential that takes what could have been an excellent movie and brings it down to the level of a not even passable one. The screenplay brought to life here is just over-the-top expositional dialogue and cringe-inducing attempts at inspirational quotes. Birth of the Dragon’s screenwriters had a hand in crafting 2001’s Oscar-nominated biopic, Ali. Unfortunately, none of their talent is evident in this poorly-executed blunder. On a cinematographic level, this short movie felt surprisingly boring. Very few shots seemed inspired, largely relying on mundane setups that were reminiscent of made-for-TV projects. Events also unfolded along a timeline that never felt evenly-paced.The very concept of days or weeks was almost completely ignored. Even within individual scenes, dialogue and character moments were extremely rushed, almost as if a longer movie was cut down to the virtually-required minimum length of ninety minutes.
The acting in Birth of the Dragon is, with one notable exception, extremely poor. Magnussen’s McKee is devoid of anything resembling charisma, talking his way through lines with an uneven, choppy flow that constantly pulled me out of the movie. Philip Ng as Bruce Lee overacted to an equally distracting level, diving headfirst into almost caricature-style acting that never felt more real than just a subpar performance. The supporting characters were forgettable at best, and just plain bad at worst. Fortunately, Yu Xia as Wong Jack Man brought a level of professionalism and gravitas to the screen that saved so many moments from total failure. The 38-year old Chinese actor has potential to be a star if given better projects. However, when paired with Ng’s entirely nuance-free deliveries and McKee’s awkward fumbling through lines, dramatic moments fall flat time and time again.
In order to be a decent entry in its genre, the one thing that this movie needed to perfect was in its impressive, choreographed kung fu fight scenes. Birth of the Dragon succeeds in this respect to a beautifully impressive degree. There are two moments, in particular, that stand out as some of the best fight setups of the year so far. What Philip Ng lacks in acting skills he more than makes up for in martial arts prowess. Every single punch, dodge, and kick weave together into an intricate dance that left me glued to the edge of my seat. These scenes, once they make their way to YouTube, will be must-see material for 2017 cinema, even if their overall film is doomed to be forgotten within a matter of days as another mediocre, unimpressive flop.
There are few good things to be said about Birth of the Dragon. However, those good things are significant and very worth noting. Yu Xia deserves high praise for his dedication to his role, even in a movie that was far beneath his skill level. The stunt coordinators and all those involved in plotting Birth’s action scenes delivered truly incredible moments that should be sprinkled liberally throughout end-of-the-year montages of the best moments in cinema. Fascinating philosophical questions were hinted at regarding the nature of martial arts and the place of kung fu in Western society. However, these shining moments were repeatedly rendered obsolete by incompetent storytelling, poor acting, and shameful diversions from the deep concepts that could have defined this film. There is no reason to see this movie in theaters. There are few to see it even once it comes to on-demand or Redbox. Although its high moments make it worthy of a reasonably average score, in almost all ways, it exists as equal parts forgettable and subpar.