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Movie Review

Kung fu icon Bruce Lee may not technically be a superhero. But so dramatic is his backstory that multiple films have been dedicated to his now-legendary "origin story"—just like Batman, Spider-Man and Superman.

Birth of the Dragon imagines the months leading up to Bruce Lee's San Francisco rumble with kung fu grandmaster Wong Jack Man in the fall of 1964. Both the rationale for and outcome of the bout remain shrouded in intrigue, in argument and counterargument.

The film likely takes liberties with what actually happened during Lee's most famous real fight … even as it pays campy, indulgent, kitschy homage to the man who would tragically die of drug complications in 1973.

As the curtain rises on Birth of the Dragon, Bruce Lee devotes himself to two pursuits. He trains would-be kung fu practitioners—mostly white Americans—in his dingy studio. And he gives them a chance to put their new skills on display by casting them as bad guys in the kung fu films he directs and stars in.

But not everyone is pleased by Bruce's "evangelical" attempt to reveal kung fu's secrets to outsiders.

Enter Wong Jack Man, who mysteriously appears in San Francisco, taking a job as a restaurant dishwasher. Bruce is convinced the fabled kung fu grandmaster has been sent by the higher-ups to discipline him for teaching guys like Steve McKee kung fu's secrets. Bruce brazenly disciples his growing flock of devotees in how to "kick a--"—a phrase he's especially fond of, in any conceivable situation.

Wong, however, strikes a different philosophical pose. "Kung fu is about self-discipline and self-discovery," Wong tells Steve, who's sought the grandmaster out as soon as he arrives in San Francisco. "Kung fu doesn't reside in the fist. It resides in the soul."

Bruce soon employs Steve as an intermediary with Wong. He throws down the gauntlet, telling Wong that he'll fight anywhere, anytime. Wong insists he has no desire to fight, that he's only in America on a pilgrimage of penance to purge sins committed back in China.

But there are other forces spoiling for a fight between the two as well, namely the Chinese crime syndicate known as the Triads. And when Steve falls in love with a pretty Chinese waitress enslaved by Triad matriarch Auntie Blossom, the only way to ensure the young woman's release is for Bruce and Wong to fight, a martial melee that's certain to attract millions in illicit bets managed by the Triads.

And so the stage is set: Enter the (young) dragon.

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

You would think that a film paying homage to Bruce Lee's greatness would make him the hero of the story, with Wong Jack Man being the wicked enforcer come to teach the upstart a lesson.

It doesn't play out that way.

Brash Bruce has little use for the philosophical and spiritual subtleties of the discipline he teaches. For Bruce, kung fu is all about—and only about—winning a fight as quickly as possible when you get jumped in a back alley.

Wong is Bruce's polar opposite. Kung fu should only be employed, Wong tells Steve (who's increasingly drawn to Wong's wisdom) when you're willing to die for what you're fighting for. Wong models humility, restraint and self-discipline—in sharp contrast to Bruce's blatant self-promotion and, at times, shabby treatment even of his followers. The contrast between these two kung fu masters is thus a sharp one, with Bruce at times feeling almost like a cocky villain, while Wong is depicted as a wise and longsuffering hero.

Wong says that kung fu can be distilled into two simple principles: Know your opponent and know yourself. He also quips, "Technique is a prison. Style is a trap," demonstrating the importance of moving beyond superficialities when it comes to understanding the importance of a discipline.

Eventually, the real villains—the Triads, led by Auntie Blossom—turn up. At that point, Bruce and Wong put their differences aside to help Steve rescue the woman he's come to love, Xiulan Quan.

Spiritual Content

Bruce Lee's approach to kung fu might be described as "secular," in that he has no interest in practicing it as part of a larger, spiritual way of life. He tells his followers, "Kung fu is not a game, gentlemen. It's not a religion. It's about who lives and who dies."

Wong, in contrast, approaches kung fu from a holistic, spiritual mindset. For him, kung fu is a path toward personal enlightenment. And to use it merely for fighting, he says, almost entirely misses the point. "Kung fu is not just a way of fighting," he tells Steve. "It's a way of life." Kung fu flows from a person's chi, he says, "a life force that is stronger than death." We hear other references to chi in the film later on as well.

In their first conversation, Wong praises Bruce's technical ability after watching him in a high-profile duel with a karate champion. "Your technique is impressive," Wong praises. "Almost perfect. There is only one limitation: you. You fight for ambition and pride, but you do not fight from the soul."

That word, soul, is one that Wong uses over and over again. And it turns out that his presence in America is primarily for the sake of his soul, as he understands it. Wong says that he is doing penance for losing his temper in an exhibition match back in China and unleashing a forbidden kick that nearly killed his opponent. "I came to wash dishes," he says. Then he confesses, "What I truly am is ashamed. I allowed my pride to overrun my discipline. I hurt someone badly. It is a great sin. Now I must do penance. I must humble myself to restore balance in my soul."

Later, Wong says that each dish he washes reminds him of his sin and his need to try to cleanse himself from it. When Steve asks him how many dishes is enough, Wong suggests that no amount of dishes will cleanse his soul in the way he longs for. Steve eventually asks Wong to fight Bruce in order to free Xiulan, and Wong—at least partially—seems to see that sacrifice as sufficient to cleanse the sins that have haunted him. He thanks Steve for having given him a path toward cleansing. Otherwise, he jokes, he would still be washing dishes.

Wong initially refuses to fight Bruce because he believes his motivation for doing so wouldn't be the right one. "I came here to subdue my pride," he says. "Not to indulge it."

Steve meets Xiulan at a shrine where she's lighting votive candles. "So this is where you pray?" Steve asks.

"Yes," Xiulan responds. "I pray for my family and for my ancestors, that they would be safe. Do you pray?"

"No," Steve says.

Elsewhere, there are passing references to another Chinese martial art, tai chi. Wong wonders if perhaps Bruce is "waiting to be reborn."

Sexual Content

Xiulan wears a nightgown that reveals some cleavage.

Auntie Blossom, who's paid for Xiulan's passage to America (along with many other young women like her) essentially treats the young woman as a slave, forcing her to work in a restaurant. Auntie Blossom repeatedly threatens Xiulan, telling her to stay away from Steve. If she disobeys, Auntie Blossom intones, she'll sell Xiulan to one of the "houses." When she says, "Your body will belong to others," the sexual implication of her threat is clear.

Steve is trying to teach Xiulan how to play baseball, and she inadvertently bats a ball hard into his crotch. As he's doubled over in pain (and sitting down), she puts her hand on his thigh at a "pressure point" that helps him with his pain. Elsewhere, there's a joke about someone's "tiny d--k." Bruce generally removes his shirt to fight.

Violent Content

Birth of the Dragon is, obviously, a martial arts flick. And we see plenty of it in action.

Bruce and Wong's epic battle eats up a good chunk of the last third of the movie. They employ a barrage of furiously flying kicks, hits, dodges, spins, jumps and other maneuvers. Occasionally, they manage to land a blow on the other, though much of their combat involves elaborately artful evasion. (There are some fierce blows and a choking scene here, though.)

Bruce singlehandedly takes on four Triad thugs. Some of the same guys deliver a nasty beat down to one of Bruce's guys, Vinnie, who owes a gambling debt. The men also trash Vinnie's mother's dry cleaning business pretty badly. Vinnie ends up hospitalized in a neck brace, and it's said that he nearly died—but not before he rams one goon's head through the glass window of a washing machine door.

The same thugs do a number on Steve that leaves him more or less incapacitated and lying on the concrete. That's when Wong and Bruce show up to ensure that Xiulan is released. Another kung fu battle royal ensues, with the two men's assailants being thrown through a window, smashed on to a table and generally beaten to unconsciousness. A man is about to fire a gun when someone hits him over the head with a bottle, knocking him out. A man swipes Bruce with brass knuckles fitted with sharp spikes, leaving a trio of gashes across Bruce's midriff.

Several attacks include punches or kicks to the groin that leave men rolling and writhing in pain. We hear talk of how Bruce broke an assailant's leg when he was still a teenager.

Crude or Profane Language

The word "a--" (usually in conjunction with "bad" or "kick") is used about 15 times. God's name is misused once. Likewise, we hear one use each of "d--k," "d--n" and perhaps a muffled s-word. Subtitles in a bit Chinese dialogue include the word "shmuck."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Steve smokes a cigarette in one scene.

Other Negative Elements

We hear several references to Vinnie's gambling problem.

Conclusion

Birth of the Dragon won't win any awards-season nominations. This martial arts homage is earning exactly the kind of press you'd expect from the few folks who've seen it at this point, most of whom have dismissed it as "cheesy" nostalgic shlock.

In some ways, it may be exactly that. And it could be argued that the film's dated feel was not accidental at all, but one that intentionally aped the vibe of early '70s martial arts films. In that sense, it's little more, really, that an platform to spotlight the considerable kung fu skills of Philip Ng (Bruce Lee) and Yu Xia (Wong Jack Man). For all the fury of the fighting on display here, though, bloodshed and death (as well as other gratuitous content) is surprisingly restrained for a 2017 PG-13 action movie.

In another way, though, Birth of the Dragon surprises. Wong Jack Man's spiritual pilgrimage is more than just a throwaway plot point. His monologues about sin and penance are startling in their clarity. Wong longs for a clean conscience. And even though he's symbolically humbling himself to try to get to that place, it's not working. Only his willingness to sacrifice himself for a great cause proves significant enough to usher him into the kind of purity of soul he longs for.

Obviously, the kung fu spirituality he articulates is a long way from a Christian understanding. That said, Wong grapples with some important spiritual concepts, namely sin, shame and the need for redemption. He even understands how difficult it is to earn your way into a state of grace by dint of your own effort alone. In the end, only a great sacrifice can accomplish that goal.

We know that Christ provided exactly that kind of sacrifice on our behalf, so that we don't have to spend our lives washing metaphorical dishes to cleanse our souls.

Wong doesn't reach that realization, of course. But he does understand that our souls matter, that our choices matter, and that sometimes we must humble ourselves—instead of exalting ourselves, as Bruce Lee mostly does here—to reach spiritual maturity.

Thus, Birth of the Dragon unexpectedly illustrates some important spiritual truths in a story that otherwise plays fast and loose with the real battle between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults

Credits

Rating

PG-13

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Philip Ng as Bruce Lee; Yu Xia as Wong Jack Man; Billy Magnussen as Steve McKee; Jingjing Qu as Xiulan Quan; Simon Yin as Vinnie Wei; Xing Jin as Auntie Blossom; Darren E. Scott as Vince Miller

Director

George Nolfi ( )

Distributor

BH Tilt, WWE Studios

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

August 25, 2017

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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