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Birth of the Dragon

Birth of the Dragon: Half-Baked Bruce Lee Bomb

  • Billy MagnussenPhilip Ng...
  • Action & AdventureDrama
  • George Nolfi
reviewed by
Marija Djurovic
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Birth of the Dragon: Half-Baked Bruce Lee Bomb

Considered to be one of the most influential, charismatic and beloved martial artists of all time – sorry Jackie Chan – the legend of Bruce Lee is still very much alive today. Many movies, some more successful than others however, have been released over the years in an attempt to capture the artist’s fascinating but terribly short life, most notably Rob Cohan’s 1993 critically acclaimed biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Now comes the latest film from director George Nolfi – writer of Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum – which is not a biopic per-se but a rather dull and an uninspired dramatisation of a legendary fight between Lee and Asian master Wong Jack Man that, according to numerous sources, occurred in the late 60’s, San Francisco. 

Taking cues but very little real inspiration from Michael Dorgan’s 1980 article titled ‘Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight’, the story introduces us to Steve McKee (Magnussesn); a young and hopeful student of the overly-cocky Bruce Lee (Ng) who is teaching his famously unique style of Kung Fu in his studio in San Francisco. Things take an interesting turn when Steve learns about an Asian master Wong Jack Man (Xia) who has just arrived to San Francisco in order to do penance for his shortcomings during a fighting match back home, by washing dishes in his cousin’s Chinese restaurant.

Also learning of his arrival is Lee, who believes that Wong is actually here to challenge him to a fight. But Wong, who is seemingly unhappy with the fact that Bruce Lee is teaching the Chinese martial arts to Westerners, doesn’t seem to want to stir trouble. But after several challenge calls from Lee – with Steve acting as the go-between – he soon accepts. Meanwhile, Steve – who surprisingly gets most of the focus throughout the minutes – is in love with a beautiful Chinese waitress, Xiulan Quan (Qu); a romantic entanglement which soon lands him in trouble with the local crime lord, Auntie Blossom (Jin).

One of the strangest and most damaging aspects of the film is the choice of focusing the story on Steve McKee – a fictionalised version of actor Steve McQueen who studied with Lee back in the late 1960s – and his seemingly uninteresting and lifeless romantic escapades.  Taking the attention away from what is most important, Bruce Lee – portrayed by the physically-ready martial-arts fighter and fight choreographer Phillip Ng – and his rise to glory is diminished by poor and meandering storytelling whilst his rivalry with Wong is equally stripped from any meaning and depth. 

The fights scenes, on the other hand, are the movie’s strongest feature with the epic battle between the seemingly arrogant and emotionally empty Lee – an aspect of the movie which tends to be overdramatized at times – and his more mindful robe-wearing rival is exciting to watch. However, the fights scenes also tend to feel a little overcooked at times, with the story reaching a rather cheesy and cartoonish climax .

Overall, Birth of the Dragon is not a complete mess; but given its subject of choice it should have been nothing short of sensational.

Like This? Try

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010), Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000)

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Along with Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee also taught other celebrities such as Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, James Coburn and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

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