After having sucked the legacy of the Grandmaster Yip Man well and dry over the last 10 years, we now turn our eyes, fangs, and empty bellies to the life of his greatest protege, Bruce Lee himself. Though we’ve seen stuff like Dragon come out in the past, it’s been a while and a half since anybody tried to tackle Lee’s style of cool intensity, which could work super well in a modern dramatic action context, similar to the tone that the original Ip Man or Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster took in adapting that man’s life to film.
However, George Nolfi isn’t the person who’s going to make that epic, and his new film, Birth of the Dragon — about a 1964 match between Lee (here played by Philip Ng) and Shaolin grandmaster Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) that would alter the course of martial arts history — is an empty and unexciting little film that still manages to be compelling thanks to the performances of its leads and copious amounts of homoeroticism.
Nolfi, a screenwriter-turned-director who is best known for writing the script for Ocean’s Twelve and writing and directing The Adjustment Bureau, is the exact wrong journeyman to be chosen for this story, and his staid and sleepy direction of what should be a hyper-exciting action flick nearly sinks the movie before it even really has a chance to get going. An early fight between Lee and a group of gangsters in an alleyway shows the limitations of his style — he cranes upward, as if he’s emulating the look of a top-down third person fighting game, and his style is without flow or physicality, which is difficult when you’re making a film about one of the masters of the on-screen craft. Even worse, the fight between the two icons is just garbage, both boring and clumsy, and it’s deflating to see things build up to such empty visuals. He can’t shoot action for peanuts — there’s so much talent on display here, and yet he botches it behind overloaded After Effects crap and really miserable editing — to the point where you’re begging them to get through the fight scenes just so you can get back to the fun of being around the two titans at the core.
Yu and Ng do good work here, and it’s a shame the movie’s not as solid as they are. Yu’s given the boring bits — hard not to be when you’re the stodgy old master who’s looking to Make Kung Fu Great Again — but the movie gets a ton of mileage out of him saying “kick his ass” every once in awhile, and he’s got a fascinating gravitas that could be better supported and explored elsewhere in English-language cinema.
Ng’s great, evoking just enough of the on-screen Lee to make him recognizable, but he’s mostly doing his own thing, as Lee’s period of teaching Kung Fu to Americans (and the controversy that followed) isn’t necessarily as documented on film as other aspects of the man’s life. While there’s a solid amount of the expected Lee hagiography here (the last fight scene just can’t help but reference the end of Enter the Dragon), Ng’s given enough room to make him brash and arrogant and significantly more interesting than I think you’re expecting here. He does a decent job embodying Jack Man’s issues with Lee’s temperament and philosophy, and it’s a shame their conflict and their characters sacrificed at the altar of the Audience Surrogate White Protagonist, which of course is painful and stupid and will undoubtedly be the thinkpiece topic of choice.
Yet, if you’re going to pull that kind of bullshit, please GOD let it be as homoerotic as it is presented here and please have the hyper-masculine and ripped as fuck Billy Magnussen play that character. Guy’s on a hot streak after Ingrid Goes West, and he’s not bad here, as a leather-covered, motorcycle-driving, kung fu-fighting motherfucker way out of his element as one of Lee’s students. It’s like Big Trouble in Little China with more abs and significantly less self-awareness. Seriously, we’re one shirtless volleyball game away from Top Gun levels of tough-and-tender dudes healing through the power of Kung Fu, and the movie’s at its absolute best right at the start, when everybody’s training under Lee and he’s talking about how you have to be hard out on those mean streets; it really seems like Birth of the Dragon is just going to be a lengthy grab-ass session between the boys and it’s massively disappointing when it becomes a more traditional love story.
Obviously you can’t do that when you’re dealing with principal figures in the history of martial arts, but boy, the option’s on the table now for the Magic Mike XXL of martial arts movies and we need that film stat.
Featured image by James Dittiger via BH Tilt. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.