Monday, August 28, 2017

Movie Review: "Birth of the Dragon" (2017)

Director: George Nolfi
Year: 2017
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

One of Bruce Lee's students hopes to free a girl he likes from indentured servitude by convincing a Shaolin Monk to face off against Lee in a challenge match backed by the Chinese mafia.

What, did you think "Birth of the Dragon" was a movie about Bruce Lee? Why would you assume such a thing? It's only completely marketed as a Bruce Lee movie complete with a play-on-words title invoking the Kung-Fu master's name. Well, it's not! This is a film about some guy named Steve, played by Billy Magnussen, who is from Indiana and has a massive chip on his shoulder. He is a student of Bruce Lee's, played by Philip Ng, who teaches his students to "kick ass." When a Shaolin Monk named Wong Jack Man (no relation to Hugh), played by Yu Xia, shows up in San Francisco, Bruce Lee assumes it's because Wong is unhappy with him teaching white people Kung Fu. In fact, that's not at all why he is there, but none this matters because this movie is about Steve!!!!!!!1111 Steve has a bit of a crush on a woman he's only met once when she helped him carry tablecloths into her restaurant. Xiulan Quan, played by Jingjing Qu, is stuck in indentured servitude to the Chinese mob. In an effort to save this lady he has barely spoken to three times, Steve strikes a deal with the mob for her freedom on one condition: they will let her go if and only if Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man fight so the mob can take bets on it. Those of you expecting a story that will offer insight into Bruce Lee himself can forget it, this is the wrong movie for that.

We don't really know what director George Nolfi and writers Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson were thinking by making Steve the main character in a film called "Birth of the Dragon." We think Philip Ng does a good job as the legendary martial arts superstar, though what he is doing is playing more of a caricature than a genuine portrayal the martial arts legend. We also like Yu Xia's performance as the far more restrained Wong Jack Man. That being said, the filmmaker and writers do their darnedest to make Bruce Lee an unlikeable, arrogant asshole and to make Wong Jack Man the person the audience can root for in their fight. We're sure Bruce Lee had a bit of an ego, and rightfully so, but the way he acts in this movie is too over the top, even for an egomaniac.

The action scenes are actually pretty decent, surprisingly. There are a couple of really fun fights, though there are other moments that get extremely cheesy when "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon"-type wire work is brought into what is supposed to be a real world fight. The main problem is there aren't enough of these fight scenes. In between the strife pitting these two world class Kung Fu masters against one another is fucking Steve, a milquetoast, bland, boring character who manages to turn the entire movie into a snoozefest. Whenever Steve's whiny ass is on the screen, we want him gone immediately. This character gets more and more insufferable as time goes on, and it gets to the point where we truly hated him as a person. Rumor has it the original cut of this film, the one that was shown at TIFF in 2016, had MORE FREAKIN' STEVE in it, and somehow, the version we saw was the Steve-light version. REALLY? WE SERIOUSLY COULDN'T TELL. "Birth of the Dragon" is still all about Steve...wait, is this a Sandra Bullock movie?

Don't trust the bait and switch marketing. "Birth of the Dragon" is a crappy romance about star-crossed lovers, not the birth of Jeet Kune Do. Even with two relatively solid performances from Philip Ng and Yu Xia coupled with some great fight sequences, it's not enough to forgive the sins of making Steve the main character in a movie that's supposed to be about Bruce Lee.

My Rating: 2.5/10
BigJ's Rating: 2.5/10
IMDB's Rating: ~4.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: ~21%
Do we recommend this movie: AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE!!!

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