A biographical film from the studio that brought us THE SCORPION KING, SEE NO EVIL and JINGLE ALL THE WAY 2 seems a little fishy. There’s actually a lot in BIRTH OF THE DRAGON that doesn’t pass the smell test once you get past the WWE Studios logo. The “historical” crux is an unrecorded and private martial arts battle that may or may not have happened and if it did, no one can decide what actually did happen. But it’s buried underneath a romantic subplot, gambling and mobsters.
Bruce Lee (Ng) has drawn the ire of martial arts experts along the West Coast, specifically in San Francisco. Lee is upsetting the status quo by using some of the ancient arts to his financial advantage as he’s steadily becoming a movie star. He’s also teaching the Eastern techniques to everyone, specifically non-traditional students of the art. Despite these grumblings, most are in agreeance that Lee is one of, if not, the best at martial arts.
One of Lee’s pupils, Steve (Magnussen) becomes aware of a new Kung Fu master’s arrival. Steve hears about Wong Jack Man (Yu) because of his selfish desire to learn fighting techniques from the best. He’s deeply in debt and looking to free a crush of his from slavery. He believes his only path towards his and her freedom is by defeating his foes with his fists. So almost in a moment of complete selfishness, he draws Lee and Jack Man together, to see which one is truly the best through battle.
Ng is charismatic as Lee. I’m a far cry from being an expert on the iconic Hong Kong actor, but my understanding is that he was a kind, artistic and beautiful soul. Ng not only captures Lee’s physical attributes, but also embodies Lee’s purity. As much as Lee would like to prove himself and defeat this foreign critic, he respects Jack Man’s opinion and style. When they actually do fight, it’s very impressive, visually for the audience, as well as an expression of Lee’s humbleness.
As for everything else, specifically Steve, it’s hard to sugar coat what it is. It’s almost like a back of mind concern that American audiences wouldn’t be drawn into Lee without some kind of original American influence about a man looking to correct the mistakes in his own life. But Steve isn’t relatable or likeable. He’s manipulative and barely fleshed out narratively. In fact, when BIRTH OF THE DRAGON shifts focus, I was tempted to hit fast forward until I noticed the plot had directed itself back to Lee’s life.
BIRTH OF THE DRAGON is surprisingly well-made, but falters because it lacks enough confidence in its strong source material. Lee is a fascinating enough figure to help this movie stand on its own two feet, but too often the film pivots towards distractions as if worried about some unforeseen or made-up concern. It’s not a bad film and as a martial arts film, it’s decent. But it’s not the Bruce Lee biopic it thinks itself to be.
Video: (1080p HD Widescreen 2:39:1) The Blu-ray captures one of the film’s subtle strengths, a strong visual flair and gorgeous set design.
Audio: (English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) There are no problems as the Blu-ray balances the audio flawlessly.
BIRTH OF THE DRAGON: Behind the Scenes (5:37): This admittedly short feature is divided up into even smaller features that barely scratch the surface of four topics, the story, stunts, one of the big fights, and acting. None of these vignettes offer any legitimate information about the making of this film and feel more likely shortened promotional material.