Birth of the Dragon is a 2016 martial arts action film directed by George Nolfi and written by Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele. The film stars Philip Ng, Xia Yu, and Billy Magnussen. The film is a fictional account on the supposedly true story revolving around the young martial artist Bruce Lee, who challenged kung fu master Wong Jack Man in 1965 in San Francisco. Principal photography began in Vancouver on November 17, 2015. It was selected to be screened in the Special Presentations section at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, and was released on August 25, 2017, by Blumhouse Tilt and WWE Studios.
In 1964, a young Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) owns and operates a San Francisco Kung Fu Academy, specializing in the Chinese martial art Wing Chun. Lee cares for his students, providing advice, roles as extras in his upcoming projects, and defending them from the gangs of Chinatown. One of Lee's students, Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen), spars with Lee while fighting in anger, causing Lee to counter and embarrass him. McKee and Vinnie Wei (Simon Yin) work for the latter's mother's laundry business, where they find out that master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) is on a pilgrimage from China to observe the kung fu scene in the United States. While carrying out a delivery to the China Gate restaurant, McKee falls for an employee, Xiulan (Jingjing Qu), who is forbidden to communicate with anyone on the outside. One night, McKee sneaks over to the restaurant to give her a grammar book, teaching her fellow roommates basic English.
McKee tries to acquaint himself with Man, who is now working as a dishwasher. Lee becomes worried by Man's presence, thinking that he would be punished for teaching kung fu to whites, later asking McKee to set up a meeting. At the Long Beach International Karate Championships, Lee performs an exhibition of karate against his kung fu and debut his famous one-inch punch. Among those in attendance, Lee points out Man in the audience. Man commends Lee's skill and technique but notices that Lee is his own limitation, to which Lee verbally retaliates and challenges him to a fight as Man leaves in peace. McKee and Xiulan sneak out, later learning that she and her roommates are owned by gangster Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing), who owns the China Gate restaurant. Asking for help, McKee learns that Man is in America to perform penance working as a dishwasher because of a near-fatal kick, the Mon Shan, during an exhibition against a Tai Chi master in Henan the year earlier nearly killed his opponent. Realizing that teaching McKee would help liberate himself, Man takes on McKee as his student. Meeting up with Lee, who tells him that he would begin filming The Green Hornet, McKee reveals his intention to end his time at Lee's academy. The relationship between McKee and Man captured the attention of Auntie Blossom, who makes a proposition to the former that if he could get both martial artists to fight, she would let Xiulan go. Man appears at Lee's academy and accepts his challenge. Despite Auntie Blossom's conditions, Xiulan refuses to leave without her fellow roommates, who are all under the control of Wing Lo. In preparation, Lee reluctantly agrees to fight under Man's conditions: only 12 witnesses at an empty warehouse, and the winner would be revealed in the newspaper the next day.
Auntie Blossom, McKee, and a few other spectators bear witness to the private match. Lee's aggressive style of Wing Chun gains him the upper hand, drawing first blood. Man's traditional style of Shaolin was fluid, countering Lee, enraging him. They both engage until the two reach the top of an unfinished staircase, to which Man uses as an example to show Lee the limitation of his style. Man leaps down to the floor with grace, and Lee follows suit as a symbol of exceeding his own limits. They continue to fight until Man is knocked down and attempts the Mon Shan as he arose, only for Lee, and his new style, to prepare to parry. The two stop and show their mutual respect with a bow, ending the fight. With no winner formally announced and $15,000,000 in bets still in the balance, Auntie Blossom would keep all the girls until one of would declare himself the winner, while the other concedes.
Lee contemplates his own style, knowing that he could have been killed during the fight. Man is confronted by McKee to declare himself the victor to Auntie Blossom, however, Man says he won the fight by virtue of showing Lee a new path after exceeding his limitation. Wei notifies Lee that McKee grew desperate to get Xiulan out of captivity, taking on the gang at the China Gate restaurant himself, leaving him to be beaten up senselessly. Lee teams up with Man and agree to help out their mutual student, defeating the gang. Lee, Man, and McKee confront Auntie Blossom and her boss, Wing Lo. Man concedes, declaring Lee to be the winner. However, Lee would accept that on the condition that Lo would let all captive girls in Chinatown free. Lo's nephew attempts to shoot Lee with a shotgun, but Lee swiftly performs the Mon Shan, knocking him out. While visiting McKee at the hospital, Lee reveals his desire not just being recognized as a star, but instead, a legend and by doing so, develop a new style that is more fluid and expressive. McKee and Xiulan bid farewell to Man before boarding his ship back to China. Man firmly believes that Lee is the right person to show kung fu to the world.
In a closing disclaimer, Lee had altered his fighting style. In July 1969, he introduced Jeet Kune Do, the forerunner of mixed martial arts.
- Philip Ng as Bruce Lee, founder of Jeet Kune Do.
- Xia Yu as Wong Jack Man, the Tai chi and Northern Shaolin Master who Bruce Lee fights.
- Jin Xing as Auntie Blossom, a gangster.
- Billy Magnussen as Steve McKee, Bruce Lee's student.
- Jingjing Qu as Xiulan, McKee's love interest.
- Simon Yin as Vinnie Wei
- Ron Yuan as Tony Yu
On February 19, 2013, it was announced that a biopic titled Birth of the Dragon about young martial artist Bruce Lee was in development, writing Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele. QED International and Groundswell Productions would finance and produce the film along with their Bill Block and Michael London, respectively. While Wilkinson and Rivele would also produce the film. On May 30, 2014, George Nolfi was announced to be the director of the film, and Janice Williams was also attached as producer. In June 2015, there was a casting call for the role of Lee, in search for a 20 to 30 years old martial arts expert. Mike Moh was under consideration for the titular role. On November 16, 2015, the film's cast was announced and it included Billy Magnussen as a martial arts student, Steve McKee; Philip Ng as Bruce Lee; Xia Yu as Wong Jack Man; Jingjing Qu as McKee's love interest, Xiulan; and Jin Xing as the brutal crime boss, Auntie Blossom. Chinese company Kylin Films came on board to finance the film, while QED left the project, Groundswell would still produce the film. London would be the producer along with Janice Williams, Wilkinson, Rivele, and Kylin's James H. Pang, while Leo Shi Young, David Nicksay, and Nolfi would executive produce, and Helen Y. Zhong, Jaeson Ma, and Joel Viertel would co-produce the film. Corey Yuen came on board to design the film's action sequences, which is set in 1965 in and around Oakland and San Francisco, about the actual fight between Shaolin Master Jack Man and the young Lee.
Filming was previously scheduled to begin at the North Shore Studios in Vancouver, British Columbia on October 28, 2015. Principal photography on the film began on November 17, 2015, in the Metro Vancouver area. Filming would last through January 24, 2016.
In North America, Birth of the Dragon was released on August 25, 2017, alongside [All Saints and Leap!, and was projected to gross around $3 million from 1,618 theaters in its opening weekend. It made $1.1 million on its first day and $2.7 million over the weekend, finishing 8th at the box office. The film's low opening was attributed to Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas and surrounding areas causing theaters to close, the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor on Saturday, and a negative response from critics and fans.
On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 25% based on 36 reviews, with an average rating of 4.3/10. On Metacritic, the film has a score of 35 out of 100, based on reviews from 11 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale.
Scott Tafoya, reviewer for Roger Ebert, gave the movie a thumbs down, writing, "How, this far into the 21st century, does a film like this get made? One that shunts Bruce Lee to the status of secondary character in a lazy and boringly familiar star-crossed romance? There are entire books and countless articles about the Wong Jack Man & Bruce Lee fight, and this film invents things wholesale to pad its running time? Why? Who could possibly be expected to care about fictitious Steve McKee and his quest to save an equally fictitious love interest from a likely even more fictitious crime boss?" Andrew Parker, reviewer for The Globe and Mail, also gave the film a negative review, saying: "In reality, it's about a struggling white actor begging both martial-arts notables to help him free a girl he's sweet on from Chinese mob-controlled sex slavery."
The film has drawn accusations of "whitewashing" from fans and critics, who said that the Bruce Lee film unfairly focused on a fictional male white character, Steve McKee, who is presented as Lee's friend. This also drew criticism to the film's advertisement of being based on "a true story" as the main character is not real.
Shannon Lee, the daughter of Bruce Lee, distanced herself from the film, saying that the film, like others about her father, "lack a complete understanding of his philosophies and artistry. They haven't captured the essence of his beliefs in martial arts or storytelling." She went on to claim that one has to "generate your own material" to avoid misrepresentation.
The film won the Golden Angel Award at the 12th Chinese American Film Festival.
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