The martial arts biopic “Birth of the Dragon” claims to be inspired by Bruce Lee’s rise to fame in San Francisco, but it seems just as beholden to “Ip Man,” the international hit that turned the real life of a kung fu pioneer into an exaggerated action epic.
Set in 1964, “Birth of the Dragon” stars Philip Ng as Lee, who at the time was an aspiring actor and martial arts instructor, legendarily angering some Chinese traditionalists with his willingness to teach kung fu’s secrets to Americans. Billy Magnussen plays the fictional Steve McKee, a Lee student who brokers a match between his master and the Shaolin-trained Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu).
Some Lee devotees (as well as his daughter Shannon) have been irked that so much of “Birth of the Dragon” is about a made-up white guy. That’s a fair criticism, though to be fair, the movie’s other minor threads are just as corny and phony, with the kind of mobsters and human traffickers who typically populate pulp.
Really, what’s most striking about “Birth of the Dragon” is how irreverent director George Nolfi and screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele are willing to be toward Lee, who for much of the movie is depicted as a grandstanding self-promoter, offering a violent, vulgarized version of his craft. The humble, spiritual Wong is more the ideal that Lee (eventually) aspires to.
The plot here is cliché-ridden, and the fight scenes are largely unspectacular. And of course there’s an argument to be made that fictionalizing Lee’s story in this way is deeply disrespectful to a legend.
Still, it’s unusual to see a film like this make its nominal hero into a jerk, who learns something essential from his nemesis. True or not, the complex characterization does make for a better story.
‘Birth of the Dragon’
Rating: PG-13, for martial arts violence, language and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: In general release