I was really excited to see a new martial arts movie in theaters, and the fact that it was about Bruce Lee made me anticipate it that much more. Birth of the Dragon isn’t really about Bruce Lee for a large portion of the film, though. The focus lies with a different character, Steve, who acts as the audience. Through his eyes, we witness the tension between Bruce Lee, who is trying to popularize kung fu in America, and Wong Jack Man, who believes the art belongs to the Chinese. The film is based on a legendary fight between the two men that took place behind closed doors, but that’s the most time we spend with the characters we actually want to see.
The character of Steve was alright, but I didn’t care to see what he was doing with his martial arts training and his romantic life because I wanted more Bruce Lee action. What we do see of Lee, though, is actually very good. The actor, Philip Ng, did a great job at portraying who the real man was, and he was given a compelling arc that took him from a bit of a conceited jerk to a more humble man by the end. Wong Jack Man, played by Xia Yu, was also portrayed as very likeable, which took me off guard because I expected him to be the antagonist of the film. That could be an issue some people have with the movie, but I dismissed it because the character was well-written enough.
Much of the martial arts action on display, including the epic fight between Lee and Wong Jack Man, was surprisingly well done. There’s a little too much slow motion sometimes, as well as a strange blur implemented into the style that felt out of place, but other than that I really enjoyed the fights. There’s a fantastic showdown at the end in which Bruce Lee beats some thugs with two wooden spoons, and it reminded me of older, classic kung fu action movies.
Birth of the Dragon was more entertaining than I expected it to be after seeing how poorly received it was by critics, but there are still far too many problems for me to consider it a good film. Right off the bat, I noticed a few clashing tones that didn’t work well with each other. There’s a great action movie in there somewhere, but it’s weighed down by a romantic drama and a crime film that I didn’t enjoy one bit. There’s humor to be found in the film, but it almost always comes at the wrong time and messes with the pace of the movie. I was bored by some aspects, and I found myself laughing at other times that probably weren’t intended to be funny.
I was hoping to see an epic kung fu movie going into Birth of the Dragon, or at least an interesting biopic about Bruce Lee’s life, but there are only a few really fun moments that are surrounded by a story that I didn’t want to see. It has a lack of focus that made the film really difficult to enjoy, and although some of the characters were fun or interesting presences, I never found myself caring enough about where they would end up.
— Camden McDonald