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Birth of the Dragon

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/29/17 00:02:09

"Well, it's kind of Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, and a shaolin monk..."
3 stars (Average)

Though the format is their bread and butter for their live shows and television programming, "Birth of the Dragon" seems to be the first film from WWE Studios that is actually centered around two guys talking smack about each other for a couple of weeks and then settling the matter with their fists in front of an audience; they've become a spot where directors the studios won't give big budgets can do decent, if modest, genre material whether or not they include a wrestler in the cast. That's the case here - George Nolfi's first feature since "The Adjustment Bureau" has its faults, but it does most of what it sets out to do better than a lot of things with bigger stars and budgets.

Before he was a star, Bruce Lee (Philip Ng Wang-lung) taught wing chun in San Francisco, with Vinnie Wei (Simon Yin) and Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) as two of his more enthusiastic students. While Vinnie's gambling gets him in trouble with Chinatown gangsters, Steve finds himself smitten by Quan Xiulan (Qu Jingjing), a recent arrival looking to study western medicine but who has been put to work in a restaurant to pay off debts whose interest exceeds her salary. As this is going on, Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) arrives in town, an event that excites martial arts fan McKee but which Lee sees as a potential challenge and rebuke to his teaching white students as well as Chinese, leading Lee to challenge Wong to a fight - one which few witnessed but which became an integral part of Lee's legend.

Some will watch Birth of the Dragon and think that making the point-of-view character basically Steve McQueen (McQueen was already a star in 1964 and wouldn't train with Lee until later, but just look at McKee and listen to his backstory) just makes what is already a thin premise ridiculous, but there's something brilliant about it, really - if you're going to build a movie out of a thin story that was so poorly reported at the time that it immediately passed into legend, why not scrape every bit of unlikely but entertaining trivia into it, enjoying the tall-take excess of it? Screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson take more flagrant liberties, which results in a film that is simple and relatively pat, but which flows easily and allows anybody to latch on, no matter how familiar they are with these people or martial arts in general.

It's not quite the line between this being a good movie and a bad one; even without details like that, it would be easy to enjoy the simple-but-earnest sorry of a cocky natural talent worth a chip on his shoulder and a master held prison by his own humility. Maybe you'd want them played a little less broadly, but maybe not; Philip Ng Wan-lung may not have the raw screen presence of the real Bruce Lee - few do - but he hits the notes this movie needs in entertaining fashion, capturing how confidence can become arrogance without sacrificing charm, making Lee likable but not easy. Xia Yu is playing a more conventional archetype as the penitent monk, but does capture some of the young man's pride that exists under the serene exterior. They're so easily the center of the film that is a bit annoying that McKee is the point of reference the filmmakers use to tell the story - Billy Magnussen bears enough resemblance to McQueen to let that do some of the work, but he's stuck playing a character that can't be allowed to outshine the masters despite being in the center of the story, even if the actor showed the sort of charisma necessary (though he does "likable" well enough as he plays off Simon Yin's Vinnie and Qu Jingjing's Xiulan).

One might also wish the fights came a little more often. They're designed by Corey Yuen and choreographed by Ng, so they're pretty good on their own, especially when Ng's Lee gets to tear through a whole bunch of goons or face off against some of the more skilled gangsters, although sometimes they're not necessarily the right kind of fight: For all that Nolfi and the other filmmakers will include a number of winks and bits of Bruce Lee pastiche in the movie, and the audiences are going to want to see his hard-hitting style, the arc of the story makes it logical to bring more of the lighter-than-air, gravity-defying moments that show spiritual growth, and it's not what's going to give the audience wanting Bruce Lee stuff a visceral thrill. Nolfi manages to find the right vibe for the movie in most scenes - and keep it coherent despite a good chunk of the film being cut after test screenings (IMDB has it at 103 minutes when the version in theaters runs 89).

Despite those efforts, it's still easy to see where things get thin, or when the cast is fine but not exceptional. The movie is still fun, though, aware of its lightness and generally able to figure out the right amount of winking at an audience, so long as that audience knows they're getting the legend and not the facts.

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