Bruce Lee became a cultural icon after his tragic death and as such has a huge following, so when a movie comes out about any aspect of his life it is scrutinised very thoroughly by fans.
Birth of the Dragon is a fictionalised account of the fight Bruce Lee had in the Autumn of 1964 with a Kung Fu expert Wong Jak Man who was representing other schools in the area and wanted Lee to stop teaching non-Chinese the art of Kung Fu. Most accounts of the fight say Bruce Lee won easily but was worn out by the time the short fight finished, which made him evaluate his fighting style and change from Wing Chun to a more street-fighting and practical outlook on martial arts which he called Jeet Kune Do. For a more detailed account of the real fight look at this excellent article here, written by Charles Russo)
The film has this fight as the central theme but looks at the different ways in which both men approach the art of Kung Fu, Bruce is shown as a cocky but very skilled fighter and Wong Jak Man as a more philosophical master and as such they end up both confronting each other which leads up to the fight in question.
Now as a big Bruce Lee fan myself i went into this movie wanting to hate it, but as the lead actor Philip Ng points out in one of the extras on the disc, you need to go into it with the view of it being a fun action movie based on the confrontation and not as a biography or documentary.
As such it is both enjoyable and frustrating at the same time. Bruce Lee is really a secondary character and the film focuses more on Wong Jak Man and Lee’s Pupil Steve Mckee which seems to throw the central story off balance. .Philip Ng does very well in the thankless task of trying to portray the Little Dragon and gets to show off his skills a few times especially in the fictional climax where he and Wong take on some Chinatown gangsters.
In some ways, this is a throwback to the Bruce Lee exploitation movies that came out in the 70’s after his death, only this time with better acting and a bigger budget. There is some enjoyment to be had, Xia Yu is excellent as Wong Jak Man and most of the supporting cast do fine, it just seems to me that if this was made just as a kung fu movie set in the 60’s and without the Bruce Lee reference it would be a lot more enjoyable.
The film is now available in the UK on DVD and Blu ray. Both have excellent quality transfers but sadly a lack of extra features apart from a short interview with Philip Ng let the package down.
FILM: 5.5 OUT OF 10