Film Review: Birth of the Dragon

Fist of Furious Opinions

The 60s weren’t renowned for everyone sporting mobile phones, so rather than pulling up YouTube clips of a street scrap for confirmation of events, we have to rely on verbal accounts, which on a basic human level is itself notoriously fraught with error/lies/embellishment/hyperbole, or quite aptly in this case Chinese whispers.

Adding into the mix that we are dealing with one of the most recognisable and beloved icons to ever sweep kick and high pitch wail across the globe. Bruce Lee may have died young (32), but he and the fighting style Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist) he created has inspired generations of followers, shaping hearts, minds and bodies now and forever. So of course anything associated with him will get a lot of attention, especially a new movie that deals with an important chapter of his life.

While continuing his acting career Lee had also been teaching Wing Chun classes in the USA, wanting to sow its multiple holistic and spiritual benefits across the states (and no doubt the world) via his movies and fame, he achieved that and so much more.

Stepping onto the fight mat to present a pivotal moment in Lee’s story we have director George Nolfi’s ‘Birth of the Dragon’ (2016), which is itself inspired by the supposed events that were the catalyst for Lee deciding to significantly evolve from his traditional fighting style Wing Chun, so it’s effectively dealing with the martial arts Big Bang as Jeet Kune Do’s basis in multiple influences went on to create the multi- billion dollar industry of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting.

Legend has it that the bang came from a fight between two individuals, namely Lee (Philip Ng) and Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia). Wong came from a Northern Shaolin monk fighting style that was pure in it’s tradition, rules, respect and reverence, so somewhat in contrast to the young movie star swagger that Lee was rightly or wrongly known for. At the very least it was a fight of the past and the future.

Lee was living in San Francisco acting and teaching Wing Chun to anyone who wanted to learn it, apparently much to ire of the Chinese community who believed it shouldn’t be taught to anyone but them. This animosity between ideologies supposedly lead to an ultimatum that would be a decisive stand-off between Lee and Wong. So in the context of the history of martial arts, it’s quite important. Given it’s importance, there is a stunning lack of coherency around what happened with many conflicting accounts.

It’s a fascinating basis to a story that is effectively a mystery, as such there’s a certain (huge) element of artistic license on board in ‘Birth of the Dragon’.

Wong Jack Man is listed in the credits as a consultant, and there has been widespread reporting that remaining Lee family members had nothing to do with it’s making, and have pulled no punches in their dislike for it, as have many fans/devotees to the house of Lee, as there are many moments where he comes off as a bit of a dick, but who isn’t at times.

Many of the criticisms also revolve around the fact that the world is still waiting for the definitive Bruce Lee movie, but to be fair to this movie, it’s not trying to be that, and I loved it all the more for it.

It’s extensively about the battle of opposing ideologies, beliefs, natural evolution and the battles one has to endure on the road to enlightenment. The more the movie went on, the more I loved it’s swaggering modern skewed fun, and the more I started to believe a lot of the criticism was based on what folk had wanted the movie to be what was in their minds, and not what was actually here, a movie that wasn’t pretending to be anything but bloody good arse kicking fun.

There’s a significant caveat to my love for it though, and it’s also (rightly) the focus of great wrath from fans. As part of this fairytale version of events, a character (Steve McKee) has been invented to supposedly help the story along. I can only believe that the writers were suffering from profound concussion when he was created and written, he is excruciatingly and distractingly awful. There was probably was a decision to somehow Americanise the story, but it was an enormous mistake. It’s not the fault of the actor (Billy Magnussen) either, as there are some comic moments where he clearly shows great timing, but Steve is just awful. Unless his ignorance was a deliberate device to show contrast to the historical spirituality that seeps trough every pore of Chinese/Eastern philosophy.

This is a modern take on a moment of legend, it has great contemporary soundtrack, it looks beautiful, the fight sequences are truly stunning and a giddy joy to behold, particularly when they are clearly an homage to Lee movies. The two leads are excellent and play off each other brilliantly. If you have the capacity to ignore the American elephant in the room, everything else around it is great fun. And that’s the key thing too it. As millions of kids (and adults) around the world for decades have watched/loved countless terrible and poorly made martial arts movies, which hopefully inspired them to take up the sport and philosophy forever more, I have zero doubt that this movie will encourage loads of kids to do the very same, how can that not be a great thing?

7/10 ‘Birth of the Dragon’ is out now.

More info on Twitter @birthdragon @bhtilt

Steve Clarke

Born in Celtic lands, nurtured in art college, trained by the BBC, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and released onto the battlefront of all things interesting/inspiring/good vibes... people, movies, music, clubbing, revolution, gigs, festivals, books, art, theatre, painting and trying to find letters on keyboards in the name of flushthefashion. Making sure it's not quite on the western front... and beyond.