It’s all a bit perplexing, this one. In 1964, a pre-Hollywood Bruce Lee was in San Francisco teaching kung fu to white people (exclusively), apparently rankling fellow teacher Wong Jack Man, whom Lee had been shooting his mouth off about. WJM challenged Lee to a fight – if Lee lost, he’d have to close his school. Their subsequent scrap quickly became the stuff of legend.
Screenwriting partnership Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J Rivele (‘Nixon’, ‘Ali’, ‘Miles Ahead’) understandably thought this would make for the bones of a good film, and their script landed with George Nolfi, who directed Matt Damon’s creditable 2011 thriller ‘The Adjustment Bureau’. Nolfi was then given a hefty $31m to make this, but… oh dear.
The writers have good biopic pedigree, but here they’ve squandered the source material – a meaty, philosophical, dynamic rivalry – with a right load of guff. Their decision to give us an entry point with a fictional kung fu student is a mysterious one: Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) is a risible character, as is his subplot, involving a half-baked romance and some cartoon gangsters. ‘Birth of the Dragon’ feels like it was made by 12-year-olds raised on schlock – it looks like ‘Double Dragon’ and plays like an episode of ‘The Equaliser’. Wong Jack Man’s (Xia Yu) wisdom is Mr Miyagi for pre-schoolers, while this iteration of Lee (Philip Ng) is a cocky, charisma-free douchebag, giving us little sense of his brilliance and magnetism. Meanwhile, there are some suspiciously super-powered moves which have no business being here.
There is a chance you could surrender to it and just enjoy the cheese, but it’s pretty bad cheese – by the time it finishes it has all but given up. In attempting to homage Lee’s Hollywood films it just comes off like the Fake Purse Ninjas from ‘Bowfinger’. File under ‘What?’