Birth of the Dragon opens with three unnecessary title cards that foretell the film’s second act: in the early 60s, Bruce Lee, the future kung fu legend, once fought Wong Jack Man, the Shaolin monk. Rumor has it they fought over the former’s decision to train non-Asians in kung fu. The film tells a story (a story, not the story) of the buildup and aftermath of that fight … or so the film’s opening précis claims. The film actually tells the story of a White Savior bringing the power of friendship to a community of Asian stereotypes living in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Philip Ng plays Bruce Lee, then an arrogant, irreverent braggart who teaches martial arts in a humble school in Chinatown. Billy Magnussen plays Steve “Mac” McKee, the white de facto main character and one of Bruce’s fair-to-middling students. Steve trains alongside his gambling-addicted best friend, Vinnie Wei (Simon Yin). Steve respects Bruce, but he idolizes Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu), a staid monk on a quest to humble himself after a catastrophic mistake he made in an exhibition match. Steve has matters of the heart on his plate too. He’s fallen in love with Xiulan (Jingjing Qu), an immigrant girl kept in bonded labor at a restaurant owned by a serpentine madame by the name of Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing).
I want you to notice two things there.
First, within a predominantly Asian cast in a story that takes place in Chinatown, the film has a white main character. The movie’s selling point involves a public fight between two martial arts legends, and Hollywood (most likely WWE Studios panjandrum Vince McMahon, whose racism suffuses everything WWE has ever made) still demands a white protagonist. Second, the Asians play Orientalist stereotypes: the compulsive Asian gambler Vinnie Wei; the Fu-Manchu-esque villain Auntie Blossom; the calm, inscrutable martial arts master Wong Jack Man; the meek servant girl Xiulan.… As a non-Asian, I recognize that there exist limits in my ability to comment on this. But everybody except Steve and (maybe, but probably not) Bruce Lee acts like they just crawled out of a pulp novel written by someone who doesn’t mind yellowface.
Now, I’ve only seen one other WWE Studios film: the unintentionally hilarious, incoherent 1989 Hulk Hogan vehicle No Holds Barred (which I recommend for its lovably inert, scenery-devouring villain). So I walked into this with low expectations. For about 60% of the running time, Birth of the Dragon kept my mind off the better things I could have done instead. But the film has already taken a critical drubbing, and anyone can see why.
The problem lies in its main character confusion. Screenwriters Wilkinson and Revele betray a desperate desire to make Bruce the main character, even though the narrative points toward Steve. The film revolves around Steve, yet he only plays a tertiary role in the climaxes and set-pieces. As one would expect of a WWE movie, the film world operates on an “X can kick Y’s ass”-based hierarchy. Like No Holds Barred, only a middle schooler or a high schooler could care enough to relate.
Birth of the Dragon’s problems mirror those of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
Both films had obviously fictionalized accounts (the 1993 movie taught me that spouses can make the least reliable narrators) that tell us nothing about their subject. Both films coast on Bruce-Lee-based martial arts action (but then, Bruce Lee carried all his films except Enter the Dragon anyway). Where the 1993 film condensed so much that it lost all gravitas, the 2017 film moves the other way. It takes a footnote in Bruce Lee’s life and inflates it into a failed epic. But at least this movie doesn’t have the corny, schmaltzy score of the 1993 film. Instead, it has underwhelming drama broken up by Bruce Lee’s comic relief. Lee’s antics elicit a chuckle or two, but the writers don’t know when to stop. By the end, he resembles Randy from Home Improvement: not so much “funny” as “won’t shut up because he craves your laughter.”
The action scenes work, but they don’t amount to make the film worth watching by themselves. George Nolfi makes the appropriate decision to model them after Shaw Bros./Golden Harvest fight scenes. But Nolfi intercuts those “bullet time” slowdowns that have become all the rage in modern action flicks. The bullet time happens just often enough to call attention to itself. You’ll remember that you could watch The Matrix or one of those Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies instead.
You know what Nolfi and WWE Studios should’ve done instead? They should’ve gone full-fiction with this. They should’ve made a buddy movie akin to The Nice Guys where not-Bruce-Lee and not-Wong-Jack-Man clean up the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The filmmakers wouldn’t have needed a pretense of reality and the writers could have taken their ideas further and straightened out the ailing narrative. That means this film did one and only one thing to surprise me: it showed me that even Vince McMahon can miss an opportunity for a bankable franchise.Liked This? Share It!