Cinematic Releases: Birth of the Dragon (2017) Reviewed

The legendary fight between two masters, Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man is finally brought to the screen at the tail end of summer 2017. 

The pairing of the two masters is one that has been discussed for decades and has never seen a proper translation to the screen. Sadly, for movie goers and fans of Mr. Lee, the subject matter far outweighs the quality of a movie that does little justice for either martial artist and their dueling views on how their art should have been treated. With almost no back story, we are given a Bruce Lee that is presented as an arrogant braggart with a chip on his shoulder and a Wong that throws his old ways to the wind at the first sign of trouble. For a story that's been a point of discussion for years, Birth of the Dragon plays like a low budget made for television or streaming release that needed a much better script treatment. This would have been perfect for Netflix. 

I won't lie. I didn't know much about this topic before convincing myself to spend ninety minutes in the theater. However, the real life story was something that piqued my interest. A Shaolin master versus a pre-Hollywood Bruce Lee is an appealing idea that should make for great storytelling and film making. Using a lackluster plot that spends way too much time focused on made up side characters and a romanticized tale of forbidden love, Birth of the Dragon is an elongated soap opera episode that just so happens to feature a couple less than stellar fight sequences. Focusing mostly on a Caucasian character that's fallen in love with an Asian damsel in distress, the entire idea of the showdown between Wong and Lee is straight up wasted for the purpose of creating goofy melodrama and (even worse) a final battle between them and a group of gangsters. Instead of focusing on realism, they've instead created a Bruce Lee movie inside a Bruce Lee movie and it feels dumb. 

You will never tell me I look silly in yellow AGAIN!

The infamous martial arts battle between Lee and Wong gets completely sidestepped, although some of the visuals that are used actually look rather cool. Philip Ng doesn't quite look the part of Lee, but he does a damn fine job of grasping the man's swagger, facial expressions, mannerisms, and vocal inflections. He's not a great actor by any stretch. Yet, he does his best to fulfill the contract of playing Bruce Lee to the best of his ability. Yu Xia is the best actor of the bunch, giving the audience a great representation of the confined lifestyle that a monk must lead. Xia is omnipresent in his performance, actually showing up each and every actor around him. He delivers a confidence and self control that plays extremely well for the screen. 

So, if you're a Bruce Lee enthusiast or a potential die hard fan, there are some things here for you to like. The fights aren't too drawn out and definitely show the variance between the styles these guys used. The filming here is standard. Nothing really stands out. There's not much in the way of audio design. And the script focuses way too much on characters that shouldn't have even been a part of this movie. Overall, it's a decent little end of summer Kung Fu flick. But, it's not the history lesson that was potentially expected. This is just another piece of revisionist historical work that needed a strong kick to the writer's face that put this thing together. Mediocre. 

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