Like many famous people, the experiences of martial arts icon Bruce Lee before he became famous are not well-known, but are crucial to understanding the person he became. The man the world came to know as Bruce Lee was born Lee Jun-fat in San Francisco on November 27, 1940, in the Chinese "Year of the Dragon". His father was a Chinese opera star who was touring the U.S. at the time, but took his family back to their native Hong Kong shortly before Japan invaded. After World War II ended, Lee's father resumed his earlier film career and Bruce began appearing on screen as a child actor. As he continued making movies, Bruce also began learning Chinese martial arts, first from his father and then from the famous Wing Chun master teacher Yip Man. Bruce was getting into a lot of street fights, which he usually won, but when he was 18, amid rumored threats to his life, his parents sent him to live with his older sister in San Francisco. Just months later, Lee moved to Seattle where he finished high school, went to college and began teaching martial arts, eventually opening his own studio. When he was 23, he moved to Oakland, California to live with locally famous martial artist James Yimm Lee, with whom he opened his second studio. Bruce himself became well-known throughout the Bay Area and beyond. He sought ways to increase the momentum of his martial arts career and to translate that into a show business career. He also began to evolve as a martial artist. This is the period of Bruce Lee's life that is chronicled (and fictionalized) in the 2017 martial arts action movie "Birth of the Dragon" (PG-13, 1:43).
In 1964, Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) is a skilled and cocky master teacher running his own Bay Area martial arts studio. He also has some of his students appear in crude Kung Fu movies which Lee produces, directs, writes and stars in. Lee is a controversial figure, both in central California and even back in Asia for his teaching emphasis on "kicking ass" over spirituality, for turning Kung Fu into mass entertainment and (especially) for teaching Caucasians. One of those students is Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen, playing a fictionalized version of actor Steve McQueen, a real-life student of Lee's). Steve is a promising student, but increasingly has doubts about Lee's philosophy and whether Lee can help him reach his potential.
And then Lee learns that a famous Chinese martial artist Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) is coming to San Francisco, but isn't sure why. He thinks it's because Wong wants to spy on him. Or maybe Wong wants to punish Lee for teaching Kung Fu to whites. Either way, Lee is unswayed and unafraid. Steve's attitude is different, however. He is intrigued by the new arrival and eventually gravitates to Wong and his more spiritual approach to life – and Kung Fu – and tries to persuade the master to take him on as a student. Meanwhile, Steve becomes an intermediary between Lee and Wong, delivering messages between the two rivals as they challenge each other and then negotiate the terms of one decisive, high-stakes fight.
This is where the veracity of the film's story gets even murkier. The set-up for this battle royale involves a fictional young Chinese woman named Xiulan (Jingjing Qu). She, as many others like her, was brought to the U.S. by a Chinese crime lord called Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing) who forces these girls into servitude – sometimes of the domestic variety – and sometimes in one of her "houses". Steve falls in love with Xiulan and wants to free her from her virtual slavery. Xiulan's fate becomes part of the motivation for the Lee-Wong match. Such a fight between the two men did actually take place, but it happened indoors, it was not filmed and there were relatively few witnesses. Consequently, reports of the fight – from how long it lasted to who won – have varied widely from the very beginning and remain a source of controversy to this day. The movie's portrayal of the fight is very entertaining and it does take sides in how it shows the fight playing out, but the actual fight sequence and its aftermath in the film's story can only be viewed from the perspective of significant creative license. However, one aspect of the fight's result does stand on its own merits. That being the significant impact the fight had on Lee's continuing rise to fame and on his style as a martial artist. No spoilers here, but you can read all about it online.
"Birth of the Dragon" is an entertaining piece of biopic fiction. But Movie Fans' reactions will depend on how they view the large amount of fictionalization in the story (including forcing that story into a recognizable Hollywood formula) – and what they think of how the climactic fight is portrayed. Based on Michael Dorgan's article, "Bruce Lee's Toughest Fight", screen writing partners (and Oscar nominees) Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson ("Nixon", "Ali", "Pawn Sacrifice") and director George Nolfi ("The Adjustment Bureau") give us an interesting version of actual events. Action movie and martial arts fans will likely be entertained, while dedicated Bruce Lee fans will probably be intrigued, if nothing else. (Although some will find the emphasis on Steve McKee's character unnecessarily distracting). Through the pleasing efforts of the filmmakers, the serviceable acting of the supporting cast and the fairly strong performances of Phillip Ng, Yu Xia and Billy Rasmussen, Movie Fans get an unspectacular, but enjoyable story which reveals at least some truths about the rise of one of the greatest and most influential martial artists of all time. "B+"