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‘Birth of the Dragon’ lacks punch

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Compelling Bruce Lee story rendered bland, boring

Bruce Lee is one of the most iconic and enigmatic pop culture figures of the 20th century. From his time in the early 1960s as an influential martial arts instructor bringing Kung Fu to the West to his rapid rise in the cinematic world legitimizing the Kung Fu movie as a genre to his untimely demise that gave birth to urban legends, Bruce Lee lived a life larger than most.

It’s no surprise, then, that even today, some four-plus decades after his death, he remains a fascinating figure. The new film “Birth of the Dragon” takes a look at an early turning point in Lee’s career, one that led him down the path that would ultimately find him becoming that nigh-mythic figure. A confrontation with a Shaolin monk and Kung Fu master named Wong Jack Man. A fight for the future of Kung Fu.

Alas, the film - based on an article titled “Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight,” written by Michael Dorgan and first appearing in Official Karate in 1980 - struggles to do justice to the momentous moment, falling into genre cliché traps and suffering from aesthetic blandness and general lack of focus – not to mention some contrived subplots and supporting characters that do little more than muddy the narrative.

In 1964, Bruce Lee (Phillip Wan-Lung Ng, “Wild City”) was just beginning to make inroads with regards to his quest to become the global face of Kung Fu. His San Francisco dojo was full of eager students, including a guy named Steve McKee (Billy Magnusson, TV’s “Get Shorty”) who is by no means intended to be a knock-off version of legendary cinematic tough guy Steve McQueen (WINK).

Meanwhile, the Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu, “Papa”) has made his own way to San Francisco after disgracing himself in an exhibition contest with a tai chi master. As penance, he gets a job washing dishes in a small café in an effort to redeem himself for his prideful, hurtful outburst.

The cocksure Lee challenges Wong Jack Man to a fight in an effort to prove that his way is a valid one, the true future of Kung Fu. The monk maintains his sense of traditionalism and so refuses to fight for a cause he considers to be essentially meaningless.

Steve not-McQueen is torn between the strength of his old master and the serenity of this potential new one. Oh, and then Rubber Bullitt gets smitten with a woman who just happens to be under the control of the Chinese mobsters that run Chinatown; to save her, he agrees to convince Wong Jack Man to fight Bruce Lee so the Hong Kong syndicate can make book on it.

The two warriors – the future and the past – do battle with all of their might, but determining the winner turns out to be a little more complicated than anyone expected. And when true danger rears its head, the only way to save the day might be for the two foes to combine their strengths and become allies.

The story behind “Birth of the Dragon” is compelling. Unfortunately, director George Nolfi can’t seem to figure out how to illustrate that. The script – a slapdash affair written by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson – doesn’t help matters, choosing to devote far too much time to secondary characters whose tangential doings serve only to distract from that old/new clash that is the sole reason for the film to exist in the first place.

It must be noted that there are some pretty spectacular martial arts sequences that take place in this film, though it could be argued that they might have been even better if filmed by a director better suited to the material. Still, the fight between the two principals puts the respective artistry of the performers front and center. There’s also an extended fight scene near the film’s end that is good enough to almost obscure the almost painful degree of genre self-awareness it displays.

As far as the performances go, Xia Yu is quietly engaging as Wong Jack Man. Despite the fact that this is ostensibly Bruce Lee’s story, he is the most compelling figure in the film. Much of that comes from the inexplicable choice to spend much of the film making Lee as unlikable as possible; I can’t speak to the relative accuracy of the portrayal, but the self-satisfied arrogance of the character is off-putting. Ng does what he can; he’s clearly talented, but he can’t match the raw magnetic charisma of Lee – particularly since he reads as roughly a decade older than he should be. Everyone else is aggressively bland – Magnusson in particular is more wooden than UCLA basketball in the 1960s.

“Birth of the Dragon” seems like nothing so much as a missed opportunity. Had the filmmakers trusted in this story – the clash between two brilliant, talented philosopher/athletes – they could have had a good movie, a solid action-oriented biographical chapter. Instead, by weighing it down with superfluous additions, we’re left with a bland, muddled mess that contributes little to our understanding of the people and places portrayed.

Seriously – it’s hard to make Bruce Lee boring, but with just a few exceptions, Nolfi and company have managed just that.

[1.5 out of 5]

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