by Mark Ahn and Adam Riske
Adam: Birth of the Dragon is amazing. It’s like if you took Dances with Wolves, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Tango & Cash and merged them all into one movie. One of the greatest gifts that cinema has given me in 2017 is being unable to know what is and isn’t good anymore. Birth of the Dragon is probably not a “good” movie but damn if I didn’t have a great time watching it.
Mark: I love this idea that the line of good/bad has been blurred, because earlier in the year, we were definitely on a string of seeing bad movies together (e.g. Ghost in the Shell, Free Fire), which, even worse than being just bad, weren’t fun. Birth of a Dragon was trying to be fun, and I think that’s where it eventually won me over.
Before we get too far into it, we should mention the plot. A young, pre-Green Hornet Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) is teaching kung fu in San Francisco when the arrival of a Shaolin monk, Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu), challenges his authority. Lee is hungry for success and his ambition to make kung fu known around the world goes against Wong’s desire to protect the integrity of kung fu; he doesn’t like Lee’s nakedly brash self-centeredness.
Mark: The first thing I liked was Wong Jack Man. The movie takes the time to develop his motivation, and so our feeling for him, whether negative or positive, comes from an organic narrative place (Bruce Lee’s motivation, strangely enough, gets glossed over). I liked the character's dignity, which elevates him above being just a simple antagonist for Bruce Lee to defeat. The middle of the movie sags (we'll get to Steve McKee later), but I got won over right at the end of the Lee/Wong challenge match, when the movie tried to reach for something larger than just two opposing fighting styles. Can you talk about the moment later on in the movie that we both loved?
As for Steve McKee, he was not the silver lining in this movie, despite his Bradley Cooper imitation. I don’t have a problem with a white character learning kung fu, since that’s what Bruce Lee was actually doing in real life, but for it to not seem like cultural fetishization, we need some more information about why Steve wants to learn martial arts, or else his dogged following of Asian sifus and pursuit of an Asian girlfriend feels too weird. That might be expecting too much from a low-stakes, B-level action movie; to the movie’s credit, Master Wong and Bruce Lee are the appropriate drivers of the action, while Steve plays the audience surrogate. But, I feel like forgiving everything by the end when both masters decide to reconcile their differences and then WIPE OUT CRIME IN CHINATOWN. I love it.
Adam: It’s a perfect movie.