Review – More Like An Afterbirth (“Birth of the Dragon”)

Did I miss something? Was there a TV series in the 90’s called, Bruce Lee: The Early Years? Because this fictionalized movie based on a small incident in the life of Bruce Lee certainly looks that way. All the elements are right there from Lee’s friends to a budding bromance of his sworn enemy.

*

Mind you, this movie is semi-fictional. So much so, that Lee’s daughter even trashed it. Anyway, Bruce Lee (Phillip Ng) has opened a Kung Fu dojo in San Francisco’s Chinatown, circa 1964, and has dared to teach any pupil he wants, going against the Chinese strict doctrine. His best friend and pupils are young hotshot Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) and comic relief Vinnie Wei (Simon Yin), both of whom work at Vinnie’s Chinese laundry in town. But that lovable rascal Vinnie always gets into trouble because of his gambling and owes money to the local crime boss in town, Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing).

Meanwhile, a disgraced Shaolin monk and Kung Fu Master, Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu), has arrived in San Francisco to not only do penance for his sins, but to check on Lee’s Kung Fu style and personal philosophy. But narcissistic and arrogant Lee sees this as a challenge and wants to prove himself to be the best to the world, so at a karate tournament, Lee demonstrates his prowess with Wong looking on. Wong is impressed, but sees that Lee isn’t humble enough to “know” the true essence of Kung Fu. Steve sees this too and jumps ship to train under Wong, much to the ire of Lee.

However, Steve has another reason to train; he’s been smitten by a Chinese waitress being held captive by Auntie Blossom, like many others. Lovely Xiu Lan (Jingjing Qu) wants her freedom and Steve finds a way, but it’s a costly one. He’ll have to convince both Lee and Wong to fight together in a secret no-holds-barred match. No matter who wins, Xiu Lan goes free. At first Wong won’t fight (his painful backstory, y’know), but Steve convinces him to do the right thing and maybe teach Lee a lesson in humility at the same time.

Well, that BIG fight happens, but the outcome doesn’t exactly go as planned and Xiu Lan is kept a prisoner. Just like in any third act TV drama, Steve goes to free his woman despite the insurmountable odds, and guess who has to team up to save his sorry ass? Yeah, like you didn’t see THAT one coming! Like I said, almost none of this really happened, with the exemption of a few key moments here and there thrown in for authenticities sake.

The silly sitcom-y screenplay by Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele (who both wrote the bio-pic’s Ali and Nixon) is pure nonsense and follows your standard A-typical formula plotline. I guess using Bruce Lee’s TRUE story wasn’t exciting or “Hollywood” enough for these two, huh? In fact, Lee’s character takes a backseat and isn’t even in half the movie! The majority of the film deals with Steve and Master Wong’s relationship and the whole Auntie Blossom subplot with Xiu Lan. I swear it was like watching an extended episode of a TV series! The dialogue is strictly boring stuff coupled with dumbed-down Eastern philosophy drivel, but I’ll give the actors points for committing to their roles.

Director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau, The Bourne Ultimatum) does an adequate job here, knowing how to shoot those crucial (albeit few) fight scenes. He doesn’t degenerate into doing smash-cuts, quick-edits, or any of those stupid camera tricks. Just pure kick-ass fighting that looks good with Phillip Ng and Xia Yu doing some damn fine stunt work. Although Ng doesn’t pull off Lee’s charisma and does a floating “Lee accent”, he pales in comparison to Yu who is the real star here. Showing more emotion than Lee with just an eyebrow raised, Yu easily steals the movie over Ng.

                             

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993)

*

Bruce Lee. The man, the myth, the legend. There have been SO many bio-pic’s about this guy that is boggles the mind. From his early days as a stunt performer in low-budget Hong Kong chop-socky films to becoming an American superstar, Bruce has been surrounded by controversy, as well as his so-called, “family curse”.

In this particular semi-fictionalized bio-film, Bruce Lee is played by Jason Scott Lee (no relation) and the film centers around Bruce and a recurring nightmare of Bruce’s father (Ric Young) who keeps seeing a terrifying phantom known as the Demon in black samurai armor. This same Demon haunts Bruce all through his life as a sort of death omen that never goes away. As young Bruce is shown receiving instruction in the traditional Chinese martial arts, he gets into trouble in China and must leave to the U.S., where he was originally born.

In San Francisco, Bruce works as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant, until he’s involved in a violent brawl with four of the cooks. While studying philosophy in college, he begins to teach martial arts classes and meets Linda Emery (Lauren Holly). They marry in defiance of Linda’s racist mother and open a local martial arts school, but Bruce’s Chinese peers demand he not train “blacks or Americans”. He’s challenged for this and defeats karate expert Johnny Sun (John Cheung) in an illegal, no-holds-barred honor match where Bruce wins, but Sun attacks him later, leaving Bruce seriously injured.

Recovering, Bruce self-teaches himself Jeet Kune Do (aka Kung Fu). He comes back stronger than before and defeats Sun a second time. Then comes the TV show, The Green Hornet and his role as Kato, the chauffeur. Bruce meets TV producer Bill Krieger (Robert Wagner) and they create the idea for the Kung Fu TV series, but sadly, the show is cast with David Carradine (a case of Hollywood white-washing) in the lead role, not him! Frustrated, Bruce, Linda, and his young children leave for China where Bruce is hailed as a mega-star and is signed up to be in The Big Boss, a major Chinese motion picture.

From there, Bruce’s career skyrockets with movie after movie and, after a few years, Krieger returns with a big-budget American movie script for Bruce called Enter The Dragon. Bruce accepts and becomes the toast of Tinseltown, but all this fame is short-lived as that Demon keeps returning to haunt him, even while shooting on the set. Based on two bio books, the screenplay by Rob Cohen, John Raffo, and Edward Khmara doesn’t go the ‘straight biography’ route, as most movies of this type do, but rather throws in a corny Demon-nemesis backstory which is rather like the Headless Horseman haunting of Ichabod Crane, which added nothing to the movie.

The story, although much of it was fabricated, has a nice feel to it, due to the terrific performance of Jason Scott Lee. Aside from the fact that Jason Scott Lee is taller than Bruce Lee, Jason has all the Bruce Lee signature moves down as well as his screams and gestures; a nice touch. Even Bruce Lee’s unique accent is there as well. Director Rob Cohen (XxX, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Warrior) does a great job here and is no stranger to the action films, having created the Fast and the Furious franchise. Being a Bruce Lee fan myself, I could appreciate both the script, actor, and director’s intention of bringing to the screen the story of one of the greatest martial arts masters ever seen. But, seriously, what’s with those demons?!  

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