Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man are martial arts legends, but ‘Birth of the Dragon’ doesn’t do the duo justice, even in a terrible summer for movies.
Last weekend saw the box office’s worst performance in 16 years.
Given the modern scope of options a typical moviegoer has, films like Birth of the Dragon never stood a chance. The film is a goofy, low-budget biopic (to use the word generously) following the iconic showdown between martial arts legends Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man.
It’s OK that you haven’t heard of it. Barely anyone has. It slotted in at eighth place in the worst box office weekend in 16 years, so it’s not exactly a blockbuster.
It’s not going to be an award winner, either. Philip Ng is somewhat charming as a young Bruce Lee, as long as the film’s extra campiness is kept in mind. Ng plays him with an oozing arrogance his namesake was rumored to have. Here, he constantly provokes his opponents; when taking on a world champion fighter, he narrates exactly what his opponent will do to the audience with startling accuracy.
But here’s one of the movie’s main problems: Bruce Lee is a supporting character in his own biopic. Sure, Ng is allotted top acting credit, but Billy Magnussen, who plays a fictionalized white character, is inexplicably given the most screen time.
Magnussen plays Steve McKee, a student of Lee’s who is drawn to Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) after he arrives in America. Wong is a Shaolin Master who takes issue with Lee’s teachings in America. Though there’s prior tension between the two martial arts masters, it’s ultimately Steve’s shifting loyalties that sparks the showdown between the two.
The real-life match is surrounded in controversy. It took place behind closed doors, with members of its limited audience proclaiming different results of the fight. To this day it’s impossible to prove exactly what happened, though it’s doubtful it includes the two opponents weightlessly floating through the air mid-fight like this film depicts.
George Nolfi directs the film, having previously stepped behind the camera for 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon. His skills are noticeably rusty; he may be trying to pay homage to some of Lee’s older films, but it’s much more likely he just had a tiny budget and worked with what he had.
Had the film not touted itself as a biopic, it would have been much more enjoyable. Biopics are meant to exude authority on their subjects; this just plays as a thinly imagined retelling of a single event in its subject’s life.
If this summer’s box office receipts tell us anything, it’s that audiences are as smart as they are picky. With more entertainment options than ever available, audiences only go to theaters for critically revered films — hence why so many tentpole would-be blockbusters (the latest Transformers and The Mummy) bombed this season.
This weekend’s default entertainment was the Mayweather vs. McGregor boxing match, which cost a pretty penny itself (and promised a much more authentic showdown between two well-known fighters).
Netflix also released its live action version of Death Note, which managed to garner some buzz despite dismal reviews. Plus, there was the Game of Thrones season finale to watch instead.
Add a dismal list of newcomers to the list (in addition to Dragon was a cheesy-looking animated movie Leap), and factor in people affected by Hurricane Harvey, and there’s plenty of reasons theater seats went unfilled last weekend. Dragon is lucky it’s forgettable enough to not be blamed for the historically bad weekend. ••