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31 Aug 2017

Martial-Arts Mishap: Well-Done Lead Performances Can't Redeem a Terrible, Made-Up Narrative in 'Birth of the Dragon'

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Yu Xia and Philip Ng in Birth of the Dragon. Yu Xia and Philip Ng in Birth of the Dragon.

Birth of the Dragon, a fictitious take on the real-life fight between Wong Jack Man and martial-arts legend Bruce Lee, has a couple of good fight scenes in it. In fact, they’re very good.

Unfortunately, those fight scenes are surrounded by crap.

Picture a diamond like the blue one the old lady had in that Titanic movie; dip it in gold; put it in a bag with $780 million and a Babe Ruth autographed baseball; then drop that bag into a communal spot where a bunch of sick hippos have taken massive shits and formed a virtual lake of shit. Let that bag sink to the bottom and become immersed in the lake of sick-hippo shit. That’s what happens to the very good fight scenes in this movie: They’re lost in shit. Sick hippo shit.

(I apologize for picking on hippos for this analogy, but, hey, they are huge and, I imagine, rather disgusting when overcome by intestinal stress.)

In 1964, the two martial-arts experts did, indeed, square off in a warehouse with very few witnesses; the results of the match became a big part of the Lee mythology. Wong Jack Man was a teacher of martial arts and favored a less-arrogant style than that of Lee. Most accounts of the fight say it lasted a few minutes … and Lee kicked the guy’s ass hard.

For the purpose of this movie, Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) is changed into a Shaolin monk on a pilgrimage to San Francisco. He’s heard of Lee (Philip Ng) teaching kung fu to everybody, and he deduces that Lee is doing it for the wrong reasons. Steve (Billy Magnussen), one of Lee’s students and a totally made-up character, meets him upon his arrival and begs to become his student. Wong Jack Man declines, and takes a humble job as a dishwasher in a local restaurant—punishment for a fight he had back in China.

Wong Jack Man is far more noble in the movie than he supposedly was in real life. In real life, Lee simply got on his nerves, and he wanted to teach him a lesson. In this film, Wong Jack Man becomes a stabilizing force in Lee’s life and changes his overall attitude, while possibly even winning their legendary match.

He also joins forces with Lee, who is basically Chinatown’s Batman in this flick, to battle some crime lords in an effort to free a bunch of women from sex slavery. Hey, the movie needed an ending, right?

A straightforward biopic centered on the actual fight would’ve done the Lee legend right, rather than making him a supporting player in this dreck. The Magnussen character actually gets most of the screen time, occasionally bumping into Lee for some confrontations at the kung fu school. The movie does include a few events that actually did happen, but they are all polluted by a need to make this more of a Lee fantasy film than a biopic. Director George Nolfi, best known for the lousy Matt Damon vehicle The Adjustment Bureau, blows it again.

It’s all too bad, because Ng gets a lot of Lee’s mannerisms right, and looks great in his fight scenes. He deserved a movie that did his work justice rather than a schlocky mishmash of fiction and real-life events. Xia is good as well, and is let down for the same reasons. Put these guys playing these parts in a real movie!

Birth of the Dragon just screams, “The summer is over … bring on THE SUCK!” at movie theaters. Stephen King fans, take heart: Advance word on It is positive, so might wind up being an antidote for the hell that was The Dark Tower, and could get the fall movie season off to a great start. We need a good one fast to wash the taste of Dragon out of our mouths.

Birth of the Dragon is playing at theaters across the valley.

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