Set against the backdrop of 1960s San Francisco, Birth of the Dragon is a modern take on the classic movies that Bruce Lee was known for. It takes its inspiration from the epic and still controversial showdown between an up-and-coming Bruce Lee and kung fu master Wong Jack Man - a battle that gave birth to a legend.
By title and presentation, Birth of the Dragon touches on the legend of Bruce Lee with a tale "inspired by a true event" and dramatized into a full-fledged motion picture. Depending on your point of view, my incredibly superficial knowledge of the martial arts master makes me either the ideal reviewer of this film (with an ability to look at the the story objectively) or the worst one imaginable (by showing that I have no idea what I'm talking about, which is usually the case). So for the sake of full disclosure, I admit that I am no particular fan of chop-socky flicks, and I have never seen one starring Bruce Lee in its entirety. And, I should add, that I don't know much about him other than he's considered one of the greatest. Years ago, I did enjoy the pseudo-bio-pic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, starring Jason Scott Lee (no relation) and Lauren Holly, which debuted nearly 25 years ago and was a critical and popular hit, despite some disappointment and disgust by hardcore fans. I suspect that the same reaction may follow Birth of the Dragon, which seems even more fictionalized than the 1993 film, and nearly as entertaining. Despite the contrivances, inconsistencies, and a surprising amount of cheese, this movie succeeds in providing solid, middle-brow entertainment, suitable for even the most black-hearted of movie fans, including myself.
Simply put, Birth of the Dragon is a fan-fiction version of Bruce Lee's life story, taking one legendary account and inflating (or perhaps conflating) those events into a self-contained which would fit comfortably as a chapter in the Bruce Lee legend. It's a fully realized footnote which serves the same purpose as Rogue One was to the Star Wars series. In this untold tale, Bruce Lee (Phillip Ng) is a renowned martial arts instructor and rising film star residing in the Bay Area. He is confronted by Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu), a Shaolin monk who has come to America to pay penance for his own personal misdeeds and to scrutinize Lee's teaching methods and principles. Playing a part in their conflict is Steve McKeen (Billy Magnussen), a frustrated student of Lee's who becomes involved with Xiulan (Jingjing Qu), a bright and innocent young lady who is being held captive by the Chinese mafia. After much taunting by Lee, and continued refusals by Wong, as well as some encouragement by McKeen, the two martial artists to do battle in a privately attended event where great financial stakes are held by the local gangsters, along with the fate of Xiulan herself.
The title is more than a little misleading, as this "birth" is not an "origin" story of Bruce Lee at all but rather an ambiguous description to his character arc where he goes from being a merely capitalistic, single-minded martial arts instructor to a philosophical teacher of principles and purpose. Lee is portrayed rather two-dimensionally from the beginning, and indeed, it is a bit discomforting to see him as the least sympathetic of all three main characters: McKeen is a torn man who finds is committed to helping his new lady love, while Wong is portrayed as nobler and certainly more understanding. Lee, on the other hand, trains his students to beat up others. When confronted against Wong, Lee comes off as immaturely arrogant and cocky, and surely deserving of being knocked off his high-horse. The climax between Lee and Wong is a little over-the-top and occasionally does not adhere to the laws of physics, but is surely more convincing than anything seen in the Matrix sequels and more dramatically effective than the final duel between young Skywalker and Kenobi in The Revenge of the Sith. I know that is not necessarily high praise, but Birth of the Dragon produces more genuine human interest and fun than any of those bloated epics. At the very least, the fight scenes are highly watchable, including an amusingly showy moment where Bruce spars against a karate expert at an exhibition, all the while mocking his adversary's fighting style and techniques. Those who want to see well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat will not be disappointed despite the exaggerated events.
Admittedly, there were a few moments when my mind would meander away from some of the occasionally stilted dialogue or bland romantic scenes, and took note of the overall production, which is impressive for a film which may have had a limited budget. The movie is greatly helped by authentic looking sets of a 1960's San Francisco and modern-day scenery which does not look too anachronistic. Of all the actors, Xia Yu is the most interesting and complex, while the others are more than adequately played by a cast of professional unknowns. Phillip Ng actually provides a more nuanced portrayal of Bruce Lee than Jason Scott Lee did in Dragon, but his dramatic opportunities are far more limited. We don't get to see Lee's home life or work outside of his studio, and his onscreen personal time is subordinated by the subplots. The fight scenes are well-choreographed and genuinely involving, with some obvious wire-work here and there but nothing which made me believe I was watching something or someone generated from a computer.
The conclusion focuses on the rescue of our damsel in distress from the clutches of the human traffickers, as the two legends team up in a fashion only slightly more credible than the "Martha" moment of Batman vs Superman. Never would I have imagined that this movie would deliver a cliche this obvious and this contrived, but the filmmakers proved me wrong. Once this final act was introduced, it was clear that any claims to historical accuracy or truth had been thrown out the window and the viewer is better left simply enjoying the ride. Again, purists will sink in the couch with contempt, but more forgiving viewers will utter good-natured groans while they simply enjoy the action.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment presents Birth of the Dragon on a BD-50 disc containing the main feature and its supplements. Also included are a DVD and digital download copy of the movie in a two-disc keepcase package with a cardboard slipcase which duplicates the cover and back art. Front loaded trailers may be skipped to a static main menu.
The movie is presented in a 1080p MPEG-4/AVC encode with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The picture quality is generally pleasing and consistent, with only minor grain during night scenes and in shadowy environments. There are one or two moments where the camera work appears to be less than up to standard, producing images which are not always as sharp or as refined as the majority of the picture.
Shots of San Francisco, whether artificially produced or not, reveal the beauty of the city (at least from a landscape point of view; the City by the Bay has more than its fair share of grime and grittiness downtown) and the movie shines best during outdoor scenes, even if colors are generally crisp but subdued. Several brief moments set in China also have a more weathered color scheme where Wong's bright orange robe is in distinct contrast with his surroundings, including dark blues uniforms and green forests. Overall, the cinematography does an excellent job of giving this modest film a higher-budgeted look.
Audio options include a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, as well as English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. However, what impressed me the most about this Blu-ray is the thoughtfully designed soundtrack, which strikes a near-perfect balance of music, sound effects and dialogue in this 5.1 presentation. The lack of bombast and boom allows the audio to come in clearly and with nuance, giving this action-based movie a dramatic subtlety which draws the viewer into the story. Crowd scenes provide activity to the surround speakers, but without gimmicky or obvious artificiality. In a couple of dramatic scenes, percussion bounces back and forth between main and surround speakers, creating an enveloping aural tension which really drew my attention. (I've already bookmarked their moments on the Blu-ray for purposes of demonstrating my home theatre system in future.) The Dolby Digital 5.1 track likewise preserves these directional cues, and I could not hear a significant difference in fidelity between the lossy and lossy encodes
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is adequate for casual watching, and preserves enough pleasing dynamics for any standard stereo system. In both mixes, voices are well-preserved and articulate and sound effects never over-power the audience.
The Blu-ray provides bonus materials under the label Birth of the Dragon: Behind the Scenes. These segments are presented in 16:9 high definition and in two channel audio, and consist of the following:
Becoming the Dragon (1:28) addresses the legend of Bruce Lee.
Building the Story (1:20) reviews the story behind the movie.
The Stunts (1:30) looks at the general action scenes involving the two main characters.
The Fight (1:19) examines the confrontation between Lee and Wong.
As one can tell from their running time, each section is brief, repetitive and and provide only superfical information. The supplements lack detail and variety, mainly because they are designed for quick sound-bite information and act more like trailers than as documentaries. Film footage and voiceover narration is often reused even under different topics, and the overall lack of substance does a disservice to the film itself.
The DVD offers previews for Lowriders, The Darkness, Resurrection of Gavin Stone, Sleight, Curve and Visions, while the Blu-ray offers none.
Michael Cimino, the late director of the revered The Deer Hunter and the reviled Heaven's Gate, once said, "one uses history in a very free way." While this may be said about most historical presentations, it seems to be absolutely applicable in the case of Birth of the Dragon, which would probably be better titled "Revision of the Dragon." Like most escapist entertainment of today, the best way to approach this sort of movie is to simply enjoy the ride and not think too much of what is portrayed onscreen. You won't be rewarded with greatness, but you may have a fun time with what is delivered. For that reason alone, it's worth a look.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.