Birth of the Dragon
2017, PG-13, 103 min. Directed by George Nolfi. Starring Philip Ng, Billy Magnussen, Yu Xia, Terry Chen, Jingjing Qu, Xing Jin.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 1, 2017
And now for something completely different: Director George Nolfi, better known as the writer of Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum, follows up his critic-splitting 2011 Philip K. Dick adaptation The Adjustment Bureau by throwing his hat into the perpetually scattershot Bruce Lee biopic ring. The pre-Hollywood Lee is played to the hilt by the charismatic Ng, who captures Lee’s egocentric yet egalitarian ethos of bringing kung fu to the masses (the film is set in Sixties-era San Francisco) but the character’s famous self-confidence occasionally bleeds over into borderline smarm. Ostensibly a retelling of actual events, the film ultimately has the kung fu godhead facing off against Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man (Yu) who has come to SF to teach the uppity young master to “fight with his soul,” not just with his kicky charisma and lightning-fast moves.
All of this would be fine were it not for the film’s centerstage subplot that has Lee’s student Steve McKee (Magnussen, riffing a bulkier version of real-life Lee student Steve McQueen) fall for a Chinatown waitress (Qu) who’s simultaneously on track to be the local Tong lord’s prize concubine. In what should have been dropped like a steaming bowl of kung fu yung at the first story session, screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson instead put the romance front and center, dealing a death blow to the film’s forward momentum. There’s plenty of B-movie Wuxia action on hand – Man of Steel cinematographer Amir Mokri and editor Joel Viertel adroitly employ slo-mo and whiplash cutting to capture the maddening insouciance of Lee’s famed fists of fury – but the end result never really achieves much more than being exactly what it is: another horseshoes and hand grenades attempt to tell version ad infinitum of the legend of Bruce Lee.