This review was originally published on News Cult in August 2017.

Starring: Philip Ng, Billy Magnussen, Xia Yu, Jinjing Qu, Jin Xing

Director: George Nolfi

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Kung Fu Ass Kicking and Mild Gangsterism

Release Date: August 25, 2017

Birth of the Dragon purports to be about a legendary fight between martial arts masters Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) and Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu), and it is about that for the most part, but an oddly significant amount of narrative weight is devoted to an out-of-place love story. I am not sure if this can be explained by commercial reasons, but I do not imagine that anyone who is mainly looking for romance would also be in the mood for sitting through a bunch of kung fu. Or perhaps it is just there to pad out the story. But that too is a puzzling choice, as there is more than enough drama to draw out of the Lee/Man conflict. The love story is far from fluffy, as it touches upon the struggles of Chinese immigrants in 1960s San Francisco, so the problem is more about overstuffing than irrelevance.

Much of the buildup to the fight is conveyed through a go-between in the form of Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen), one of Lee’s American students, who is essentially a third protagonist. Far from whitewashing, his presence gets at the heart of the conflict, or at least what one combatant assumes to be the heart of the conflict. Lee believes that Wong Jack Man has travelled to America because he disapproves of Lee teaching kung fu to Westerners. While Man is certainly the more traditional of the two, their disagreement is more complicated than that. That ambiguity helps overcome the problem intrinsic to this film: the actual fight between these two was not recorded, and its result is the stuff of legend. Birth of the Dragon makes the wise decision that the actual winner is beside the point.

Naturally, Birth of the Dragon is really only worth recommending if its action choreography can come anywhere close to the level of its subjects. I have only ever seen clips of Lee’s film and TV work, but I cannot imagine that Birth is anywhere near as stunning as the likes of Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. It is far from embarrassing (Ng especially has an extensive martial arts background), but masters in any field deserve tributes that earn more than only the faintest of praise.

Birth of the Dragon is Recommended If You Like: Kung Fu Completism

Grade: 2 out of 5 Chips on Your Shoulder