Few duels of martial arts masters have reached such legendary heights as the clash between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man in 1964, a fight that remains as controversial today as it was then. The length, the outcome, and even the catalyst of the fight itself vary depending on who you’re talking to, but “Birth of the Dragon” wants no part in settling that age-old debate, and we’re all better off for it.
Under the direction of George Nolfi, “Birth of the Dragon” sidesteps any concern for being a history lecture, and instead takes an actual event in the life of two martial arts legends and transforms it into one of the best Bruceploitation flicks you’re likely to see!
Hong Kong veteran Philip Ng steps into the role of the legendary Bruce Lee, and gives a portrayal that is at once both stunningly meticulous and truly revolutionary. Xia Yu plays the Dragon’s famed opponent Wong Jack Man, re-imagined here as a Shaolin monk on a pilgrimage to America as penance for a terrible mistake from his past. Billy Magnussen plays Bruce’s eager student, Steve McKee, and ultimately serves as the lynch pin on which the fabled private match hinges, while Jin Xing and Ron Yuan portray local crime bosses Auntie Blossom and Tony Yu, who become mutual enemies of our two protagonists. Jingjing Qu rounds out the cast as Xiulan, a love interest of Steve’s who soon finds herself in deep with the local Triads.
San Francisco, 1964. Nine years before attaining international superstardom in “Enter the Dragon“, the headstrong martial arts master Bruce Lee operates a Wing Chun academy, while making his own movie in the hopes of taking kung fu and Chinese culture to the global stage.
However, Bruce faces a new challenge with the arrival of Shaolin Master Wong Jack Man. Although Wong claims his pilgrimage to America is part of his quest for redemption after nearly killing an opponent in a sparring match, Bruce believes that Wong is in town to put an end to his practice of teaching kung fu to non-Chinese students, a practice that has ruffled the feathers of the local Chinese community. As Bruce’s Caucasian student Steve McKee tries to act as a diplomat between both men, the local Triads see considerable profit to be made in the two kung fu masters squaring off and eventually prod them to meet in a no holds barred match.
Let’s get this out of the way – Bruce Lee scholars, historians and all-around fanboys could, if they were so inclined, nitpick “Birth of the Dragon” to death on the issue of historical accuracy – everything from the fact that Wong Jack Man, while an exponent of Northern Shaolin, was never a Shaolin monk, to that fact that he and Bruce certainly never formed a dynamic duo of kung fu masters to battle San Francisco-based Triads. However, this would also miss the entire point of the film just as much as defining Jeet Kune Do as a “style” misses the very teachings of Bruce Lee himself.
As any martial arts nerd can tell you, Chinese culture has historically treated films recounting the lives of folk heroes and legendary martial artists less as biopics and more as fan-fiction. Bruce’s own earlier biopic, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”, while more historically accurate overall, certainly takes its share of poetic license and seriously – everyone familiar with the “Ip Man“, “Drunken Master“, and “Once Upon A Time in China” series is aware that NONE of that actually happened, right? The commonality of this approach to retelling the exploits of Chinese legends is their understanding of the way legends transcend truth over time because, as another famed martial arts master named Bruce once observed, sometimes the truth isn’t good enough.
In “Birth of the Dragon”, we meet Bruce as a brash and cocky alpha male with a personality more akin to Johnny Cage or Tony Stark than the sage of kung fu we know him as today, but far from disgracing the impact he left upon the world, the film enlivens how much of a turning point the fight with Wong Jack Man was in his life.
Not unlike Jet Li’s “Fearless“, which took a similar (and arguably more pronounced) approach to the life of HuoYuanjia, “Birth of the Dragon” shows Bruce Lee emerging from his famed duel a truly changed man, re-evaluating everything he thought he knew going into the fight. It is a fact that Bruce’s own dissatisfaction with the outcome of the duel was the catalyst for his growth as both a martial artist, philosopher and his subsequent development of Jeet Kune Do and the film’s portrayal of Wong Jack Man as a peaceful, pacifistic monk gives viewers a literal personification of the enlightenment Bruce gained from the fight.
The film’s abundant martial art sequences, orchestrated by famed action director Corey Yuen, are simply incredible and Philip Ng and Xia Yu may be two of the most perfectly cast leading men this year. The centrepiece of the film is of course, its recreation of the much-debated no-holds-barred faceoff between the two and it’d do the smackdown a disservice to reveal anything more than the fact that it’s worth the admission price all by itself.
Philip Ng is out of this world amazing, going full Ip Man with a cavalcade of chain punches, and the deftness of his portrayal extends well past the action – he nails Bruce’s mannerisms and personality quirks with a seamlessness that’s almost spooky in its accuracy (just try to tell me you can’t see Bruce Lee cupping his ear when a perceived challenge is thrown at his feet)!
The film is also as much Wong’s story as it is Bruce’s and he gets the opportunity to quite literally kick off the film with a sparring match at the Shaolin Temple that leaves him humbled and forms the prism through which he views his fight with Bruce. The fan fiction nature of the film comes into full effect when Bruce and Wong later unite to take down the local Triads holding Steve’s girlfriend hostage and you know what, facts, schmacts! Seeing the two of them fight as brothers-in-arms is nearly as thrilling and engrossing as their own legendary showdown.
“Birth of the Dragon” has a keen understanding of how history becomes legend and in placing its focus on the latter, delivers one of the most out and out fun movies on the life of Bruce Lee you could ask for. Philip Ng delivers a brilliant portrayal of the founder of Jeet Kune Do and frankly, I wouldn’t mind a spin-off focused on Xia Yu’s terrific, albeit fictionalized, rendition of Wong Jack Man. It’s rare to see a film live up to its title, both figuratively and literally, so well, but through itsown unique understanding of how legends are born, this film truly does show the world the “Birth of the Dragon”!
- The film is primarily based upon Michael Dorgan’s 1980 article in Official Karate, “Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight”.
- Philip Ng, whose family runs the Ng Family Chinese Martial Arts Association in Chicago, Illinois, is a practitioner of many different martial arts disciplines, including Choy Lay Fut, Wing Chun, Hung Gar, Taekwondo, Eskrima, and Jiu-Jitsu. Among the teachers he’s studied under is Wing Chun Sifu, Wong Shun Leung – one of Bruce Lee’s own mentors!
- The character Steve McKee is an homage to Steve McQueen, an actual student of Bruce Lee’s.
- The film’s premiere was attended by none other than the real Wong Jack Man.
- One of Wong Jack Man’s students, Rick Wing, published his own book on the fight, entitled “Showdown in Oakland: The Story Behind the Wong Jack Man – Bruce Lee Fight”.
- Years after their famed duel, Wong expressed regret over fighting Bruce and attributed it to youthful arrogance, on both Bruce’s part and his own.
- The fight between Bruce and Wong was previously recreated in Rob Cohen’s 1993 biopic “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”, where the two were respectively portrayed by Jason Scott Lee and John Cheung, though Wong is renamed Johnny Sun in the film.
The film’s version of the fight also ties in Bruce’s infamous back injury that left him bedridden for months (due to a spiteful kick from his opponent after the fight’s conclusion) though in reality, the fight with Wong Jack Man and Bruce’s back injury were two completely unrelated events. The film also depicts the two having a rematch following Bruce’s recovery, but this too is entirely fictional.