This much is true: long before he was famous, Bruce Lee fought Wong Jack Man in Oakland, California, and the fight had a profound effect on how Lee approached martial arts from that day forward. Birth of the Dragon is not a historical account of that fight. In its defense, it doesn’t pretend to be. But keep in mind that the circumstances surrounding that historic battle (not to mention the fight itself) bore no resemblance to what’s portrayed on screen here. It’s not fair to come at this movie for a lack of historical accuracy, especially since it’s clear it never set out with that in mind. On the other hand, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a truly great Lee biopic, as both this and 1992’s dreadful Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story demonstrated that the desire to sensationalize an already interesting life is probably too great for filmmakers to resist.
Philip Ng does a fine job of playing Bruce Lee, a seemingly impossible task under the best of circumstances. Ng is certainly up for the physicality of the role (Ng was even a student of Wong Shun Leung at one point, one of Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun teachers), and he effectively channels the brash spirit of a pre-stardom Lee. The problem is that to illustrate the transformative effect these events had on him, the script makes Lee cartoonishly arrogant, and that’s the first warning sign. Xia Yu plays Wong Jack Man as Lee’s opposite number, humble, spiritual, and understated.
To get Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man to fight, and to get the movie to its requisite runtime (the actual, historical brawl was over in a matter of minutes), we’re introduced to two fictional students of Lee. One is a hapless young Chinese-American with a gambling problem, which serves the dual purpose of introducing Bruce to San Francisco’s Chinatown underworld and giving the film an early excuse to show off Philip Ng’s martial arts prowess. The other (Billy Magnussen) is an angry young American who finds himself torn between the teachings of Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man, and, more importantly to the story, falls in love with a young woman under the control of Chinatown gangsters. His attempt to free her is what ultimately leads Sifu Wong to accept Lee’s challenge, as the gangsters plan to clean up on gambling profits when word of the fight gets out.
There’s something clever about how Birth of the Dragon combines a classic martial arts movie plot with the storied cinematic tradition of fictionalizing elements of Bruce Lee’s life for the screen. The problem though is that these elements never line up. For some it might be worth enduring to get not just one, but two climactic fights that will reward your patience for the previous hour and change. Like nearly everything else in the movie, the actual fight, the very reason this movie exists, is fictionalized and stylized. But what a fight it is, as director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) gives us plenty long takes and overhead shots, that really make both of its leads look great. As terrific as this fight is, the movie then takes an entirely fictional final bow with another battle that’s a real joy to watch.
When it finally gets where it’s going, Birth of the Dragon might deliver just enough action to satisfy at least a little bit of your martial arts movie craving. But despite genuinely compelling performances from Philip Ng and Xia Yu, the film struggles mightily in its middle act, and trying to get the audience to care even a little about any character not named Bruce Lee or Wong Jack Man is a losing battle. Throughout, we’re subjected to almost torturous expository dialogue and some flat performances as the movie tries to pad out an otherwise thin story.
It was ambitious to try and build a movie around a fight that, by the most credible accounts, only lasted a few minutes. But those minutes were so crucial to how Lee approached his craft that I suspect the filmmakers could have gotten away with telling a more nuanced, historically accurate story with the promise of an appropriately Hollywood-ized fight as the payoff at the end. Birth of the Dragon tries to have it both ways, and as a result pulls too many punches.
By the way, if you’re interested in this story as it really happened, I can’t recommend Showdown in Oakland: The Story Behind the Wong Jack Man/Bruce Lee Fight by Rick Wing highly enough. Wing has plenty of eyewitness accounts and really did his homework and it’s a fascinating read for any fan of Bruce Lee or martial arts in general.
Read and download the full Den of Geek Special Edition magazine here!