Movie Review - Birth of the Dragon
Unlike All Eyez on Me, it doesn't try to be a cradle-to-grave story or encompass so much of someone's life. It focuses on a slice of this person's existence, less than a year. Some people might criticize for not being more encompassing, and I would agree there are some aspects that could have been more deeply explored, but, unlike All Eyez on Me, the dead ringer as the lead isn't just a dead ringer who never acted before. The dead ringer here has acting credits that go back 15 years. He's not a novice and is highly trained. The movie is not as long, so it's able to hone in on its theme and it doesn't hold its subject with such reverence that it can't let him look bad or really be wrong. As such, this film feels way more profound and authentic, no matter how fictionalized.
The real-life story is Bruce Lee. He's Chinese. He was born in San Francisco in 1940. He was raised in Hong Kong until the age of 18. He began teaching martial arts after attending the University of Washington. He married a white woman he met in college and had two children. He moved to California where he continued teaching martial arts where he also began competing in karate championships until a Hollywood producer recruited him to be in movies and TV. He died of an allergic reaction in the summer of 1973 at the age of 32.
Based on the 1980 magazine article by Michael Dorgan, the screenplay was written by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson. The movie has been criticized for being less about Bruce Lee and more about a white guy who is his student, and being more from the white guy's point of view. That's one reading of the film. Another reading puts this film in the same context as Lee's iconic film Enter the Dragon (1973) of which this movie's title is a riff.
If one watches Enter the Dragon, one knows there's a white guy prominently featured in that film as well. His name is John Saxon. In fact, Saxon is the last face one sees in that film. Arguably, that 1973 movie is told as much through Saxon's character's point-of-view, as Lee's character. Here, Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods and The Big Short) plays Steve McKee, a delivery man for Chinatown restaurants who is also a student at Bruce Lee's school. He falls in love with Xiulan, a girl at one of the restaurants who is under the auspices of a gangster named Auntie Blossom. It's no more pulpy a plot than the one in Enter the Dragon, and I would challenge that Magnussen gets just as much screen time as Saxon.
Xia Yu co-stars as Wong Jack Man, the Shaolin monk and kung fu master who nearly killed a man in Hong Kong during a match, so he retreats to San Francisco and works as a dishwasher as penance and humility. His reputation precedes him and Steve becomes a student of him. Despite Wong's objections and reluctance to fight again, he's goaded by Bruce and begged by Steve once Xiulan is kidnappd and Auntie Blossom says the fight is the only way to get her back.
It ends with a really great fight sequence that's probably not as impressive as the final fight sequence in Enter the Dragon. It's certainly not as intense, gritty or bloody as the best martial arts film of this year, Headshot, starring Iko Uwais from The Raid: Redemption, but it does show off the incredible skills of both Philip Ng and Xia Yu. It also brings up an interesting tug-of-war between their characters over how martial arts should be used. In that, the soul of martial arts is the star not Bruce Lee. Lee is just a way in. Some might not be satisfied with that, but I was.
Rated PG-13 for martial arts and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 29 mins.