• Birth Of The Dragon

    Released By: Universal
    Released On: November 21, 2017.
    Director: George Nolfi
    Cast: Philip Wan-Lung Ng, Yu Xia, Xing Jin, Jingjing Qu, Ron Yuan
    Year: 2016
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    The Movie:

    Some folks have been known to bitch incessantly about unnecessary Hollywood remakes, and I've definitely thrown my voice into that ring on many occasions. The thing that sticks in my side more than the endless churning out of rehashes, however, is when film makers opt to kick out a film "Based on True Events," and completely re-write a historical account to give it more pizazz. A perfect example of this is James Mangold's, "Walk The Line," wherein the writer's found it necessary to embellish aspects of Johnny Cash's already exemplary lifestyle to flash him up, as if the story of The Man In Black wasn't already compelling enough on its own. And while I do agree that there is occasionally some merit in not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story, that mentality takes the driver's seat far too often. Imagine, though, a far worse scenario than Walk The Line as it currently exists; imagine the writers cutting all of the meat from the true version of the story, and having Johnny and June team up to fight the Mafia in order to save Waylon? Well, okay, I would also pay to see that film.

    Still, George Nolfi's Birth of the Dragon, manages to take a legendary, more obscure moment in time, cut 99.9% of fact from it, and turn it into a ridiculous soap opera with larger-than-life characters reduced to supporting actors in this silly story. Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) teaches Wing Chun-style Kung Fu at a run-down dojo in 1960's San Francisco Chinatown, still years from North American celebrity status with the release of Enter The Dragon and Jeet Kune Do. He has a number of dedicated students who follow the still-arrogant sifu, including a young man with a motorcycle and Daddy-based anger issues named Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen). That's right, a motorcycling student of Bruce Lee's named Steve McKee. No, don't hold your breath for James Schmoshmurn, but we also meet Vinnie (Simon Yin) another student who has helped Steve get employment at his mom's laundromat. Vinnie is also wise to the world of organized crime in the area, run by the lethal Auntie Blossom, who helps families smuggle their daughters in from China and employs them at her restaurants and brothels to pay off their debts to her.

    While delivering freshly-laundered table cloths to Auntie Blossom's restaurant, Steve meets the beautiful young Xiulan, and strikes up a friendship with her when he finds out that she loves American sports magazines, which help her to learn English. Determined to spend more time with her, and ignoring Vinnie's warnings about Auntie Blossom's wrath, Steve stages transparent "tricks" to meet with her, which results in Auntie Blossom threatening to send her to the brothels. But there are bigger matters at hand that take a backseat to the star-crossed love story in Chinatown; word about town is that famous Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) is coming to town to check out American Kung Fu, and may not be too impressed that Lee is teaching White students the ancient Chinese fighting style. Lee is convinced that the more experienced fighter will challenge him to make him look bad and ruin his career, but becomes a cocky dickhead when he finds out that Wong has no interest in fighting him, though he does have a lot of opinions on the subject.

    McKee, meanwhile, becomes enamoured of the Man from Shaolin, and strikes up a friendship, convinced that he can learn things that Lee can't teach him. Wong takes about eight seconds to decide that teaching a Westerner is okay, since Lee is only instructing them in how to "kick ass", and takes about another eight seconds to decide that he will fight Lee after all, following a demonstration in which a now-elevated-to-super-arrogant-dickhead Bruce shames an experienced Karate fighter at an exhibition tournament. A fight is arranged, and Steve orchestrates a plan in which Auntie Blossom will have control of the betting on the fight, provided she releases Xiulan. Plans go sideways yet again, though, when the fight is determined to be a draw, with neither combatant willing to declare a victor. Auntie Blossom takes a hardline, demanding protection from Vinnie's mom's laundry, and threatening again to put Xiulan into the brothels if Steve can't settle the bets for her. Torn between two masters, Steve first asks Bruce, and then Wong Jack Man for help, inspiring the two masters to team up and take on the Triads to help Steve free Xiulan.

    To get the good out of the way, Birth of The Dragon has a couple of things that work well for it. First up, the choreography in the fight scenes goes from good to amazing, with realistic action sequences that get the blood pumping. The showdown in the restaurant evokes memories of Way of the Dragon, and is handled perfectly from start to finish. Other fight scenes are less intense but still entertaining, although the fight between Lee and Wong is a little too over the top to be enjoyable. Both lead actors, if we can call Ng and Yu Xia the lead actors, come across with fine performances, though Ng turns into a caricature by the time the film hits the halfway point. By all accounts, the real Bruce Lee was a bit arrogant, but Ng is over the top here, making him downright unlikable. It should also be mentioned that while Yu Xia plays Wong's calm, monkish self quite well, the real Wong Jack Man was not a Shaolin monk. Other performances range from decent to idiotic, with Magnussen's McKee taking the prize for stunned naivety and a sense of derp that rivals Keanu Reeves at his worst.

    To Nolfi's credit, though he is inexperienced as a feature film Director, he does a great job of keeping things moving in this, as well as he did in 2011's The Adjustment Bureau, and Amir Mokri's trademark cinematography does add a current look to the film; it's a decently moving, nice-looking picture. And that's about all it is. Really, there are two ways to go about doing a picture like Birth of the Dragon successfully; you either lock it down as factual, use real events and the real details, which are far more compelling than lame-o Steve McQueen ripoff who for some reason can't solve his own problems, or you kick out the jams completely and turn it into an Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter-type vehicle, making Bruce and Wong Jack Man entertaining cartoons. As it stands, however, Birth of the Dragon is nothing but nonsensical fluff that has zero substance, and no redeeming value.


    Birth of the Dragon comes to Universal Blu-ray (with additional DVD and HD Download) in an AVC-encoded 2.40:1 transfer that looks great, given the number of darker scenes in the film. The cinematography comes across nicely as well, with the more modern colour palette showcasing solid lines and lots of detail, with no issues to speak of.

    The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio English track is what you would expect it to be, with tasteful to liberal use of the surrounds and subwoofer, and dialogue balanced well with the rest of the soundstage. The spoken word is always clear, and the surrounds bring the action scenes to life without overdoing it. No hisses pops, or crackles were evident. An English 2.0 Dolby Digital track is also available for those who would prefer that, but it's not as lively as the surround.

    Descriptive Video Service (English) is also available, as are subtitles in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, and Spanish.

    Extras are limited to Birth of the Dragon: Behind The Scenes (5:54), four trailer-like segments that feature a lot of clips from the movie as well as repetition in clips and interviews, with Philip Ng and others. Not too much information to be gleaned here, but it's a short watch.

    The Final Word:

    If the movie-buying public keep supporting non-historical garbage like Birth of the Dragon, studios will keep pumping it out. If you're a fan of the film, the Universal disc looks nice, but is almost devoid of extras.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!