A mostly "passable and adequately compelling" movie dubiously tagged as "based on a true story."
by Steve Pulaski
Birth of the Dragon really shows how meaningless and dubious the popular movie tagline "based on a true story" is in the year 2017. The film is indeed a dramatization of the fight between Bruce Lee and Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man, but at its core, its unassuming Caucasian lead character Steve McKee, played by Billy Magnussen (Ingrid Goes West), is fictitious. In a world where "whitewashing" movies is a known problem that has burdened films like Gods of Egypt and the remake of The Beguiled, it's astonishing screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele would even consider handicapping a drama about Bruce Lee with a white character who didn't even exist. Before you claim it would make the film more marketable, than why is Magnussen omitted from the film's theatrical posters?
Here, Magnussen's Steve is just a plot device - a tool to unite his teacher/sifu Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) with kung fu master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu), who comes to America to live a life of modesty washing dishes as punishment for the past. An attempt to "unite" the popular individuals who take widely different approaches to the art of kung fu fighting eventually becomes a plan for the two to square off in a battle that's outcome will apparently free sex slaves such as Steve's love interest Xiulan (Jingjing Qu), who is held in captivity by a female gangster (Jin Xing).
I'm not even begin to try and connect the dots on the oversimplification of a fight's outcome becoming the end-all-be-all to a sickeningly inhumane sex-traffic ring, but judging by how thin the subplot is, I suppose Wilkinson and Rivele don't want you to in the first place. It doesn't matter, really. The most interesting material in Birth of the Dragon comes in the form of Lee and Wong's rivalry predicated upon their different approaches to kung fu. Lee has greatly commercialized the combat style, teaching it to Westerners, promoting it in movies, and made it a tool to radiate pride and cocksure fighting amongst those who attempt to master it. Wong, as one can judge from his journey to embrace a life of reservations, sees it as a practice of discipline and craft. He blasts Lee upon arriving to a sparsely attended fight early on in the film with a dis fit for a trap song. "Your style has one key weakness," he tells him to his face. "You."
The generational difference in the film is very potent and comes through in the way that Lee responds to Wong's criticisms (spoken of largely through McKee before Wong and Lee get a chance to talk) with cockiness versus Wong's commitment to modest jabs and self-reflection. It's an interesting detail that shows the kind of self-identified, outspoken brazenness of many institutions and individuals during the tumultuous 1960s, and only becomes more intensified when it comes time for Lee and Wong to square off to prove their worth and free Xiulan and several, unseen others.
Birth of the Dragon is stylistically bland but photographed nicely. Directed by George Nolfi, who directed The Adjustment Bureau in 2011, the film adopts a very linear style that favors the crystal-clear, linear approach to shots and sets. Cinematographer Amir Mokri (Bad Boys II, Fast & Furious) does indeed conjure up some lush cinematography that accentuates symmetry and grace, particularly in the opening fight scene with Wong and later on during the storming of a restaurant. There's nothing stylistically special about the film, however, and given the straight-forward narrative, some discernible attributes would've benefited Nolfi greatly. Other than that, he simply just directs what's in front of him in a communicable but unremarkable way.
I just cannot get over the worthlessness of Steve McKee, a character who feels so out of place not only because of how he's integrated in the story, but because of the wasted opportunity to flesh him out into someone more than just a generic face between two legends. According to sources, Birth of the Dragon was originally 106 minutes long (as opposed to its current, 89-minute state) when screened at Toronto Film Festival in 2016. Several scenes developing McKee as a character and a fighter were lost, presumably in efforts to undermine inevitable claims of whitewashing. While it might have succeeded in a minor sense, the film also sacrificed development for one of the characters who needed it the most - the nonexistent one whose presence begs justification.
Birth of the Dragon was distributed by BH Tilt, an off-shoot of Blumhouse Productions, which is more-than-likely responsible for some of your favorite horror films over the last several years (Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Split, Get Out, and the list goes on). I've committed to seeing every BH Tilt film in theaters that I can in order to support the spin-off studio's thesis, which revolves around providing lower-budget, genre-pictures a smooth, reliable chance at domestic success. Although passable and adequately compelling, Birth of the Dragon shows that they're still going to need to do a lot to keep the attention of me and several potential moviegoers going forward.
Steve's Grade: C