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 young 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).
Based on a 1980 article about the fight by Michael Dorgan in Official Karate magazine and set in and filmed (at least partially) in San Francisco, “Birth of the Dragon” presents an extremely talented but arrogant and cocky 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 at San Francisco State, 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.”
Meanwhile, in a trite and annoying 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, but with the stipulation that it take place in private, behind locked doors and with a only a few witnesses. The climactic portion of the film is this epic fight, which takes place in a warehouse near the Golden Gate Bridge.
In real life, the fight between the two 24-year-old martial arts masters took place in Oakland, and there is considerable dispute as to who won. The fight, though, affected Lee greatly and led him to expand his martial arts techniques and philosophy as he went on to television (“The Green Hornet”) and film (“Enter the Dragon”) stardom and became a martial arts guru to the stars (among his students: Steve McQueen, Chuck Norris, James Coburn and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Wong, who is still alive and served as a consultant on the film, comes off as the most intriguing character. As played by Chinese actor 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 as with Jason Scott Lee in the 1993 biopic “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” he doesn’t capture the charisma and magnetism of Lee — understandable, since he was among the most charismatic and magnetic people on the planet.
‘Birth of the Dragon’
Rated PG-13 for martial arts violence, language and thematic elements.