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Birth of the Dragon | A breezy take on Bruce Lee’s mythic clash with Shaolin master Wong Jack Man

Birth of the Dragon Philip Wan-Lung Ng Bruce Lee
(Image credit: Altitude Films Entertainment)

The Fight That Created The Legend.

This action movie about martial arts icon Bruce Lee has taken quite a pummelling from some fans and critics. Taken on its own terms, however, and Birth of the Dragon is a breezily enjoyable affair.

Fittingly, the film revolves around Lee’s most legendary fight, his clash with Shaolin master Wong Jack Man in 1964. This episode from early in Lee’s career is shrouded in mystery. No one, it seems, can agree how long the bout lasted, or even who won. So the filmmakers’ choice to create a fictional framework for the mythic contest is perfectly appropriate.

Birth of the Dragon Philip Wan-Lung Ng Bruce Lee

In 1964, the 23-year-old Lee (played by Hong Kong actor Philip Wan-Lung Ng) is teaching martial arts in San Francisco when the revered Wong (a quietly charismatic Xia Yu) arrives in the city. In the film’s version of events, Lee interprets Wong’s presence as a rebuke to his presumption to teach kung fu to westerners.

We, however, understand Wong’s true motives. He is doing penance for an earlier act of arrogant pride: scrubbing his soul clean by washing dishes in a Chinatown restaurant.

Nevertheless, the film contrives grounds for the men to meet in combat, an elaborate scenario that involves Triad gangsters, a beautiful indentured waitress (Qu Jingjing) and the white American who loves her (called Steve McKee in a nod to Lee’s famous student Steve McQueen).

This character has come in for considerable flak, as has the portrayal of a cocky, swaggering young Lee. The film’s lively inventions pay off, however, when we reach the epic showdown and Lee’s fists of fury come up against Wong’s serene Shaolin artistry. Even if this isn’t how things happened, it is certainly rousing on screen.

Certificate 12A. Runtime 95 mins. Director George Nolfi