If you can put aside the bland white guy named Steve pinging between scenes, stitching the various strands of story together with his white-guy need to learn martial arts badassery and save a beautiful Chinese girl from prostitution, then the otherwise all-Asian-cast, Bruce Lee biography-inspired “Birth of the Dragon” can be kind of fun.
George Nolfi’s period kung fu tale, set in an evocative 1960s San Francisco, is an elaborately fictionalized account of a real fight between the young, pre-legend Lee and a Shaolin master. It was an East-meets-Westernized showdown — seen by few, its details disputed ever since — that has since taken on mythic proportions as a turning point for the charismatic future star in developing a new kind of martial arts to introduce to the world at large.
As alternatingly silly and serious as its mix of wisdom and wallops, and even with that blond bro gumming up the works, “Birth” is nevertheless zippy, B-movie entertainment. It proves that zeroing in on a small but significant part of a famous person’s story, and how it reflects on their life at large, can often make for a sturdier entertainment than the usual long-skim approach to the biopic. As hyperbolized history goes, you could do a lot worse; at the least it’ll kick up enough nostalgia dust that you’ll probably squeeze in a re-watch of “Enter the Dragon” right afterward.
In 1964, Lee (Phillip Ng, “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai”) is making a name for himself in the Bay area as a cocksure sifu (teacher) specializing in a street-fighting version of the wing chun style of up-close combat and looking to break into movies and television with his charm and fists. Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu, “The Painted Veil”), who adhered to a chi-centric, acrobatic northern Shaolin type of kung fu, is introduced in Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson’s screenplay as a visitor to San Francisco looking to live a humble dishwasher’s life as penance: back in China, in what was supposed to be a demonstration match, his pride got the better of him, and Wong nearly killed his opponent.
But Lee is convinced Wong’s real aim is eventually to fight him as a rebuke for Lee’s teaching kung fu to white Americans, supposedly a no-no in China’s traditionalist culture. Unafraid of a confrontation, Lee takes the opportunity at a statewide martial arts championship to brashly challenge Wong. The quiet grandmaster’s real problem with Lee, however, is one of motivation, not tradition: Wong sees in the bullying upstart someone quick with his fists, but lacking soul and self-discovery.
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Would these were the only elements leading up to the battle — warring philosophical schools of fighting are all any kung fu movie has ever needed — but there’s this white guy from Indiana we must endure. Maybe out of some insecurity about American audience appeal, “Birth” introduces a struggling student of Lee’s named Steve (Billy Magnussen, “Ingrid Goes West”) as a kind of Caucasian bridge between the circling Chinese masters.
Steve’s involvement with Xiulan (Jingjing Qu), an indentured waitress beholden to a triad gangster named Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing, “The Protector”), becomes the pulpy, peril-driven side story that the screenwriters believe is needed to give an already legendary showdown extra narrative punch. Because they’re not just squaring off to see whose technique is stronger; the outcome also determines whether Xiulan earns her freedom.
The character of Steve — like pouring ketchup on Peking duck — wouldn’t be so eyeroll-worthy if it weren’t seemingly at the expense of a fuller depiction of Lee, whom Ng plays with a spikily funny, antagonistic brio. Why so much of this corn-fed composite of Lee’s white trainees, when there was a real Caucasian in Lee’s life then — his wife Linda — who is completely absent from the film? (So absent, in fact, as to be absent from the fight scene, when she was only one of a handful who witnessed it.)
With representation such an ongoing source of activism and concern from people of color in Hollywood, it’s hard not to look at Steve and think that the role (an eager US-born trainee torn between different ideologies and caught up in a dangerous romance with an immigrant) could easily have been made into an Asian-American character.
Elsewhere, “Birth of the Dragon” is an entertaining attempt at old-school kung fu, with Ng’s portrayal of Lee’s ambitious aggression and Xia Yu’s magnetic serenity making for enticing opposites as Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”) builds up to their bout, which itself satisfies as a mini-epic of imposed will and lessons learned, a thrilling case of fists-of-fury versus monk-like strength.
Veteran Hong Kong action maven Cory Yuen, credited as martial arts “designer” here, serves up both some nifty meat-and-potatoes choreography in the big fights and the more light-hearted, stunt-centric restaurant smackdown of Auntie Blossom’s goons that wraps up the gangster storyline.
Lee screeches, kicks, and brings out the famed one-inch punch. Wong twirls spins, and ties his opponents in knots. Steve, dispatched early by the bad guys, is left outside in the alley, and that’s the best closing gift “Birth of the Dragon” could have offered.