In 1964, the not-yet-legendary Bruce Lee had a fight with Wong Jack Man, a Shaolin master who’d recently arrived in the Bay Area from China. The details of the match, including who won it, remain controversial (it happened in private, with few witnesses and no judges), but it is believed that it changed Lee’s attitude about his fighting style, opening the door for his later success.
Well, fine. The dully mediocre “Birth of the Dragon,” directed by George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”), embellishes wildly upon those basic facts, portraying Lee (Philip Wan-Lung Ng) as an arrogant showman in need of humbling and Wong (Xia Yu) as an austere monk who disapproves of Lee teaching kung fu to white people. Neither of them is the protagonist, though; that, of course, would be a fictional blond kung fu student of Lee’s, one Steven “Mack” McKee (Billy Magnussen), whose desire to free a girl (Jingjing Qu) he likes from Chinese gangsters is presented, dumbly, as the catalyst for the fight.
Viewers hoping for a Bruce Lee biopic will be disappointed. Aside from the creative liberties taken by screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (a duo with several actual biopics to their credit, including “Nixon,” “Ali,” and “Miles Ahead”), there’s also the matter of Lee being the No. 3 character and kind of a bastard. (This may well be accurate, but the film treats it, and everything, shallowly.) Even those who just want to see some sweet martial-arts action will be left wanting more, as the central fight is anti-climactic, the skirmishes before and after it forgettable.
C- (1 hr., 43 min.; )