BIRTH OF THE DRAGON
Directed by: George Nolfi
Starring: Philip Ng, Yu Xia, Billy Magnussen, Simon Yin, Terry Chen, Ron Yuan
San Francisco, 1965. Bruce Lee is teaching Wing Chun to American and Chinese students alike, while trying to launch an acting career at the same time. Among his students is Steve McKee, a young white American who is dealing with deep anger issues which hamper his training. When he learns that Grand Master Wong Jack Man is travelling to San Francisco, he goes out of his way to meet him and eventually becomes friends.
When Lee finds out about Wong Jack Man, he believes that he is in America to challenge him, for daring to teach kung fu to non-Chinese. However, Master Wong has his own personal agenda to see to. He is initially reluctant to accept Lee's challenge, but other people's lives become involved making their duel an inevitability. The question is, who would win?
Let's deal with the elephant in the room first - When this film was originally shown at a film festival last year there was an uproar due to the fact that this film was being touted as a Bruce Lee biopic, yet had a white guy as the main protagonist, with the character of Bruce Lee being merely a supporting player in his own movie. The film has since been re-edited to reduce Billy Magnussen's role in the film, but he remains the main protagonist.
The character of Steve brings a lot of melodrama to the story - he falls out with his Sifu, he falls in love with a Chinese girl, and arguably taints Master Wong's initial opinions of Bruce (when asked what Bruce teaches, Steve says he teaches them to kick ass, even though there is an earlier scene where Bruce explains that it is actually about discipline of the mind, body and spirit). When you have two such charismatic characters as Bruce and Master Wong, it feels like cruelty when we're dragged away from them into whatever Steve's storyline is. You can see in the early trailers how different the original cut of the film is to the one presented now, and the changes, I believe, are definitely for the better. Billy Magnussen is a good actor in this, but let's face facts - we want to see Bruce Lee and Master Wong.
This is not meant to be a biopic. It is a fictional story that focusses on and is inspired by a real event - the duel between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man - even though only a handful of people were actually present to witness it and even then accounts vary as to what actually happened.
While a lot of Steve's character arc and background have been cut from the film, he is nevertheless the main gateway through which the Asian characters are introduced. Bruce Lee is very well played by Philip Ng, who manages to convey Bruce's movements and the cadence of his speech very well, even though he doesn't look a hell of a lot like the guy. However, Bruce's air of self confidence is interpreted for the purpose of the plot as self promotion and arrogance. Bruce is a showman, eager for an opportunity to legitimise his standing by beating a bona fide master with his own style.
Yu Xia is excellent as Master Wong. The relationship he develops with Steve is quite touching and his martial arts prowess is amazing. There is a scene where Master Wong is working in a restaurant kitchen and starts using one of the plates to practice his balance, hand/eye co-ordination and flowing movements. Its a long, unedited take and looks fantastic
In a way, martial arts movies have pre-conditioned us to root for Master Wong. How many times have we seen the outsider arrive, try to be humble but have his patience and ability challenged again and again by the local bully, until forced to fight? Hell, it's practically the plot of The Karate Kid. But here our brains are scrambling against the grain because the bully is Bruce Lee! Luckily, you eventually realise the Ying/Yang situation going on between the two, and the personal growth they both achieve from their meeting.
There are a number of fight scenes throughout the film - when we first meet Master Wong, he's attending an event very similar to the opening of Enter the Dragon - but there are two in particular which need to be looked at.
First is the main duel itself. Cory Yuen (The Transporter) is the fight choreographer for this film and he has pulled out all the stops. The fight itself is great but the film techniques that surround it elevate it to another level. Its intense, epic and incredibly tense.
That fight scene is the most important and significant part of the film but it isn't as enjoyable as the climactic battle, when Bruce and Master Wong join forces. This is just as epic but much more enjoyable because its much more cartoonish in its approach. The pair are a joy as they watch each other take on a bunch of bad guys, as if it were some kind of rap battle/dance-off/walk-off. Again, the Ying/Yang motif is very much present in their fighting styles - Bruce is animalistic, barely contained energy. Master Wong is as still as a millpond, barely expending energy to get out of the way of his opponents.
Having seen the early trailer for this, I was very reluctant to give it the time of day. I was disgusted at the idea that a film about Bruce Lee would end up with him as a side character. Luckily, the makers of the film listened to those initial complaints and did their best to rectify the situation and the result is a very entertaining film. Director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) might seem a strange choice for this kind of film but with the help of Corey Yuen his film contains two of the best action scenes I've seen in a while. The duel between Master Wong and Bruce is beautifully filmed, and the end fight is both fun and jaw-dropping.
8 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)