A film that pits Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, and a Shaolin monk in opposition to gangsters should not be as boring as Beginning Of The Dragon

Photograph: WWE Studios



Philip Ng, Xia Yu, Billy Magnussen, Simon Yin, Qu Jingjing, Jin Xing


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To know the phenomenon of Bruce Lee, it’s important to return to his first black-and-white display screen check, executed in 1965 for a Charlie Chan TV collection that by no means obtained made. The set is an incongruous lounge someplace on the Fox lot, and Lee is wearing a phenomenally tailor-made go well with. He’s already disgustingly photogenic, however on prime of that, he’s killing it. He carries himself like he’s the large visitor on that evening’s Johnny Carson. The producer asks him to point out some kung-fu strikes and convey out an assistant, who seems to be this complete midcentury dinosaur in horn-rimmed glasses. Lee is smiling and schmoozing and making the crew chuckle off digital camera, however his actions on the man are scarily quick.

That is pure Lee. He by no means went for something higher than second-rate materials—inane plots, cartoon sound results, punches that by no means precisely join, tacky zooms—however he strode by it unassailable and bodily good, sweat glistening on his extremely developed torso, redolent of a sort of magnificence that hadn’t obsessed the digital camera for the reason that begin of the 20th century. Motion pictures had largely forgotten about muscle tissues earlier than Lee got here alongside, and whereas the common Hollywood main man now appears to be like like a gymnasium rat, no person has matched Lee in trying as commanding from as many various angles. The person knew he was a murals. Actually believed it.

Perhaps it’s as a result of he was a style in and of himself that Lee grew to become probably the most counterfeited star since Charlie Chaplin, as numerous knockoff cheapies adopted his dying, headlined by a slew of impostors who adopted such names as Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lai, and Lee Bruce. (There was additionally the two-for-one particular Bronson Lee, who wore a Death Wish haircut and mustache.) So take George Nolfi’s Birth Of The Dragon as an insipid modern update of the barrel-scraping Bruce-sploitation flick; there’s no reason a movie in which Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen (er, “Steve McKee”) duke it out with Chinatown gangsters in mid-1960s San Francisco has any business being this joyless and dull.

Photo: WWE Studios

Birth Of The Dragon takes nominal inspiration from a notorious episode in Lee lore, his 1964 fight against the rival martial arts teacher Wong Jack Man—a touchy subject, as neither the fighters nor their witnesses ever agreed on even the most basic details of what happened or why. Yet a “he said, Lee said” Rashomon approach was apparently too obvious for Birth Of The Dragon. Instead, it reinvents Wong (Xia Yu) as a gnomic Shaolin monk who comes to San Francisco in the generic, “cue ‘Green Onions’” pre-hippie ’60s as an act of penance and is immediately perceived as a threat by the cocksure, 24-year-old, rock-star-guru-like Lee (the stiff, uncharismatic, 40-year-old Philip Ng).

It could’ve been worse, though it could’ve been a lot better, too. Xia, a mainland Chinese actor who first drew attention for starring in Jiang Wen’s superb debut, In The Heat Of The Sun, is a winning presence, and it’s easy to imagine the movie’s boastful Lee—who comes across as a total tool—self-destructively obsessing over the arrival of this martial-arts master who contents himself with living in a crappy SRO hotel and doing dishes in a local diner. But this isn’t some existential pop culture fable about rivalry and pride. No, its internal turmoil is all with “McKee” (Billy Magnussen, almost as bad as Ng), Lee’s short-tempered, motorcycle-riding star pupil; slowly drawn to Wong’s simpler wisdom, he eventually talks the two masters into facing off in a warehouse showdown.

Why? So he can free the pretty Xiulan (Qu Jingjing) from the clutches of the nefarious Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing, more or less reprising her role from the Tony Jaa vehicle The Protector, which is baffling) and stick it to the local tongs. Thus, Birth Of The Dragon finds itself in the saddest category of genre programmers—the kind whose conceptual craziness is canceled out by execution. The script (by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson) is addicted to narrative banalities, killing time with subplots involving a local laundry business. The aura of cheap-o emptiness is overwhelming: Scenes tend to be visually featureless, composed against strangely empty walls or Vancouver street corners. Even the occasionally decent fight choreography looks unappealing. Nolfi, who previously wrote and directed The Adjustment Bureau, limits any assertions of artistic personality to making sure that the characters are seen wearing fedoras whenever possible.

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