Birth of the Dragon is a much stranger movie than it appears on the surface. The marketing and basic premise would lead one to believe that this is a martial arts film that focuses on the real-life bout between kung fu masters Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man in 1965, dramatizing the circumstances that led to that fight and demonstrating the changes the fight brought about in both men. Ostensibly, this is true of what Birth of the Dragon details, but the main attraction of the film is actually shuffled into the background, a means to an end that is neither what the audience expects nor likely wants.
Instead, the protagonist of the film is one Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen), a student of Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) who meets Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) after the Shaolin master arrives in San Francisco. Through Master Wong, Steve comes to realize that Lee is obsessed with his own ego and stardom, which prevents him from becoming the true master that he has the potential to be. Meanwhile, Steve falls in love with a Chinese prostitute (Jingjing Qu) whom he wishes to free from her imprisonment to the Chinatown mafia. An agreement to fight for the entertainment and and gambling prospects of the this mafia is what apparently drives Lee and Wong to their legendary bout, rather than the ideological differences between them.
Never mind that this is disingenuous to the film’s own title card, which claims that Wong came to the United States to fight Lee because Lee was unethically teaching kung fu to Westerners, but this positions a white protagonist to place his fictional conflict ahead of the real life drama that the film is sold on. What’s even more bizarre is that this in turn portrays Lee into one of the film’s main antagonists, a bully who wants to spread kung fu for his own glorification and to teach people how to “kick ass.” The titular birth refers to Lee’s realization that he needs to develop a style less dependent on ego, but because Lee is the character with only the third-most screen time, that development doesn’t nearly approach the prominence it should.
So the plotting is trite and shuffles those who should be the leads into supporting roles, but what of the kung fu itself? To be fair to the martial artists, their fights are very impressive, demonstrating a mastery over their own bodies that is a marvel to behold when matched against one another. The amount of character inherent in Philip Ng’s and Yu Xia’s physicalities turns their fighting styles into an acting art in and of themselves. This is, however, hampered by a choice to speed up and slow down the footage of their epic fight, which draws attention away from the performances to a detrimentally distracting degree. This only becomes exacerbated when Lee and Wong spend the last part of the third act fighting their way through a string of generic bad guys in service to the Steve-saves-the-girl plot, which breaks the supposed biopic aesthetic of the film in favor of a more generic Hollywood punch-em-up.
At the end of the day, Birth of the Dragon just doesn’t know what it wants to be. It uses the promise of a biopic character study to lure viewers to a generic and fictional save-the-girl actioner. It promotes Asian actors to sell the conceit of a modern day Bruce Lee movie only to position a relatively unknown white actor to steal the spotlight. It prepares the audience for authentic kung fu spectacle only to have it replaced with cinematographic fluff and over-the-top silliness. The key to a strong punch is the force and willingness to follow through, but Birth of the Dragon is so limp that it crumples on impact.