The problem with “Birth of the Dragon,” George Nolfi’s largely fictionalized account of a 1964 fight between an Oakland martial arts instructor named Bruce Lee and San Francisco instructor Wong Jack Man is that Lee, the future movie star and worldwide phenomenon, is the third-most important character in the film.
Instead, it’s a story mostly told from a Caucasian perspective, through the eyes of Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen), an aspiring martial arts student who is caught between his loyalty to Lee (Philip Wan-Lung Ng) and his fascination with Wong (Yu Xia), who has come from China specifically to put Lee in his place (Lee’s crime: teaching martial arts to Westerners).
“Birth of the Dragon” presents a talented but arrogant Lee who is in need of comeuppance. Wong, a Shaolin master, is the man to deliver it. He arrives by boat from China and takes a job as a dishwasher in a Chinatown restaurant. He waits for Lee to come to him.
At a martial arts tournament, Lee humiliates his competition with Wong in attendance. Declining Lee’s offer to fight in front of the crowd, Wong instead criticizes Lee’s “limitations.”
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Meanwhile, in a trite subplot, Steve falls for a waitress at a Chinatown restaurant who has been enslaved by her employers until she works off her debt she owes for her immigration.
Eventually, Wong agrees to a fight. It’s the climax of the film and takes place in a warehouse near the Golden Gate Bridge.
Wong, who served as a consultant, comes off as the most intriguing character. As played by Yu, he has a quiet and humble dignity.
“You fight for ambition and pride, but you do not fight with your soul,” he tells Lee.
Ng does a fine job as Lee, but he doesn’t capture his charisma and magnetism.
‘Birth of the Dragon’
Rated PG-13 for martial arts violence, language and thematic elements. 1:35. Fayette, Hamburg.