It’s not too much to expect Bruce Lee to be the “hero” of a martial arts biography titled “Birth of the Dragon.”
But Lee, here played by Philip Wan-Lung Ng, is sort of this jerk in the background of a tale of early 1960s San Francisco Chinatown. He’s cocky, swaggering, teaching kung fu to “the whites” and emphasizing the “ass-kicking” part of the discipline.
He exists as some American “problem,” a showboat embarking on a movie career who has to be reined in by the Wisdom of the Old Country in the person of a famous Shaolin monk.
Sure. Make THAT work. Outside of China.
George “The Adjustment Bureau” Nolfi’s film focuses — absurdly — on a white student (Billy Magnussen of “Ingrid Goes West”) intermediary between the two “sifu” (teachers/masters). The film follows the student as he learns from each, tries to defend a pal’s mom’s Chinese laundry and courts a binu (“servant girl/slave”) smuggled in to work in a Chinese restaurant, running afoul of the Chinatown gangs (tongs) that run the protection rackets, human smuggling, and everything else.
“Everything else” seems to be the goal of this script. As in everything-BUT-Bruce. It’s allegedly based on “Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight,” but it takes so long to get to that, you’d better have something else fun and interesting to show us in the meantime.
“Something else” comprises a pretty slice of San Francisco, circa 1964, and an alternate take on Lee from the one the marvelous and worshipful “Dragon” gave us. Sure, I’ll buy that, and I kept waiting for the movie to give me a buy-in moment. But it never does.
Shaolin master Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) has fought one of those epic “demonstrations” at a mountain monastery in the film’s opening scene. Now, he’s come to America, allegedly to hassle Lee for teaching “The Whites” the martial art that “belongs to China.”
Steve McKee (Magnussen) hears he’s coming, picks him up and the docks and is shocked when the master takes a job washing dishes at a diner.
“I must wash dishes until my soul is clean,” he says, throwing a little zen at the kid.
The muscle-bound Bruce (Ng, of “Zombie Fight Club”) is spoiling for a showdown, a “You’re the past and I’m the FUTURE” moment. But the visitor won’t oblige.
Until the machinations of this picture’s “Dragon Lady,” called “Auntie Blossom” here (Xing Jin) and the tongs conspire to give us the fight all of Chinatown wants, but virtually no one will be invited to see.
Nolfi limits the amount of wire-work “magic” in the fights. But whenever a guy floats and there’s an abrupt jerkiness to his landing, that’s what’s going on. “Birth” doesn’t come close to matching the fanciful fights of the great martial arts pictures of the past 25 years — “Crouching Tiger,” “Hero” and the like. The final fight is fun, if not wholly realistic. But it’s the only “fun” brawl.
Ng is skilled but charisma-free, perhaps the best reason to focus the film on his opponent. Xia does the inscrutable “Shaolin navel gazing” thing well.
The whole enterprise plays like a throwback, summoning up memories of Lee’s cut-rate/no-script “chop sockey” pictures where the charisma was obvious, the fights epic, the stories an afterthought and the effects wincingly obvious.
And the fact that they set out to tell the wrong story from the least interesting point of view (Is there a longer cut that corrects that?) makes you wonder why anybody bothered, or if estate lawyers got in the way at some point.
Unless, of course, the whole point was to humble the American master in a film intended for the Chinese market.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for martial arts violence, language and thematic elements
Cast: Philip Wan-Lung Ng, Billy Magnussen, Yu Xia
Credits:Directed by George Nolfi, script by STephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson. A BH Tilt release.
Running time: 1:33