The Movie Waffler New Release Review - BIRTH OF THE DRAGON | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - BIRTH OF THE DRAGON

The showdown between a young Bruce Lee and kung fu master Wong Jack Man.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: George Nolfi

Starring: Philip Ng, Billy Magnussen, Xia Yu, Jin Xing, Terry Chen


“In 1964, long before Bruce Lee was a global phenomenon, he had an epic fight with a Shaolin master named Wong Jack Man. Many believe Wong’s goal was to punish Lee for teaching Kung Fu to Westerners. This film was inspired by that fight.” So begins Birth of the Dragon, with a premise that suggests the film should be a surefire sensation, something in the vein of the classics that the actual Bruce Lee starred in. It falls well short of those expectations.


Part of the failure of Birth of the Dragon can be attributed to how it diverts its attention from the martial arts maestros largely in favour of a random American named Steve McKee. McKee, a student of Lee’s, makes it his mission to rescue a girl in captivity, who’s captured his heart. More of a side effect than a side story, McKee’s attempt to fight a criminal gang for a girl he’s smitten by couldn’t be less interesting in a story centred on Bruce Lee. Billy Magnussen is undoubtedly a very capable actor - see last year’s Ingrid Goes West - but the role of McKee has no charisma and makes you wonder if the ability to portray unalloyed boredom was a requirement on the casting call. It’s impossible to care for his character despite the film’s demands.

Credit where credit is due; the two actors who somehow don’t sleepwalk through this dull masquerade are Philip Ng and Xia Yu, who portray Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man respectively. Neither of them are exactly impressive, but Yu is committed to depicting the wisdom that made Wong Jack Man a master and Ng gets it right in displaying the sort of attitude Bruce Lee had that made him a global star.


Birth of the Dragon has an identity crisis. It doesn’t know who to focus on, and it doesn’t know whether to lionise or demonise its protagonists. The brash portrayal of Bruce Lee sometimes feels like an active effort to discredit the legend, and as for Wong Jack Man, I’m not sure I really have sympathy for a quasi-nationalistic disgust at Bruce Lee teaching non-Chinese folks how to fight. What Birth of the Dragon does know what it wants to be, though, is an actioner. There’s a collection of momentarily enjoyable fighting sequences here. The ones involving Lee tempt you to grab your phone and hit YouTube to see the glorious fight scenes conducted in the man’s actual movies, like the one versus Chuck Norris at the end of Way of the Dragon. Furthermore, it’s hard to see the fight scenes here as anything more than passable in the era of The Raid series and the John Wick flicks.


George Nolfi’s previous and only directorial effort, The Adjustment Bureau, was a creditable, easily digestible take on fate and destiny. He showed skill in taking a popcorn flick and using it to explore weightier themes. Sadly, that’s completely absent in Birth of the Dragon, which is less thought-provoking than the theory that Steve McKee’s name is an (awkward) allusion to '60s star Steve McQueen.

With the lack of any memorable fight scenes or noteworthy performances, and with a potentially fascinating true story told in a soulless way, what is there to gain from watching Birth of the Dragon? The answer is, simply, nothing.

Birth of the Dragon is in UK cinemas February 23rd.