The year is 1964, and in China the kung fu master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) is at the peak of his learning, but an error in judgement has landed him with the task of travelling to San Francisco where Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) has begun training the Americans in the ways of martial arts. This is considered taboo by many in the establishment back in China, and has made Lee unpopular with them, but he carries on regardless, refining his own techniques and relating them to non-Asians. The spiritual aspect to the art bothers him less than being able to "kick ass" if he or his students should ever get into a fight in the street - another reason the grandmasters want to take him down a peg or two.
Birth of the Dragon proved mightily controversial among fans of Bruce Lee in a manner that this mini-industry of Lee-inspired movies did not often do. They cried racism when they watched it, for it turned out their hero was not the main character, in fact one played by Billy Magnussen, the fictional Steve McKee, was more the protagonist than Lee was, a thinly disguised version of his actual friend and fellow movie star Steve McQueen. By all rights it was fans of the Bullitt star who should have been aggrieved at this blanded out reading of McQueen, for Magnussen was given very little to work with, and more often stood about like a lemon to interpret the drama for the audience.
But you could understand why those Bruce aficionados were more outraged, since he was more or less the bad guy in this North American/Chinese co-production. If you were not blinded by fan worship you would accept that he could be an arrogant man in real life, but there was no doubting his dedication to his craft, spirituality and all, and that was the real sticking point as this incarnation simply wanted to be the best at beating people up. There was little of his respect towards the kung fu, or his later adaptations, when he was portrayed as a smart guy thug who relished planting his one-inch punch on an opponent and incapacitating then, as well as his array of other combat moves, so Wong had to pick up the slack.
Wong Jack Man was, in contrast, modest and in touch with his soul, which made him the goodie by default, meaning we were expected to want to watch him win when he and Lee finally got into their big brawl. This was grounded in fact, there really had been a one-on-one fight between the two men held in private, and that was replicated after a fashion here, with added floating down from high places moves that jarred with the more realistic tone of the rest of it (kung fu can make you defy gravity if you're good enough, apparently). The choreography was by Cory Yuen, no slouch in that department, and was pretty decent, though not in the style that those who had experienced Lee's movies would particularly recognise, as this was a lot slicker as befitting a film made over forty years later.
The, yes, spirit of Bruce Lee was difficult to discern here, as was the case with all the Brucesploitation flicks if you were being honest: there may have been good things about selected cash-ins on his memory, but even these twenty-first century tries at drawing an audience with his celebrity by association, which had more funds behind them, were always going to be in his shadow regardless of how much their creators wished to pay tribute. To be honest, there was more respect here for Lee than the film's detractors would allow and a reconciliation was present in the story's final stages, it was more that the McKee character dominated with his subplot of romancing a subjugated Chinese woman taking up too much timewasting space. Quite why the makers thought we would be interested in a white guy who was not even the proper McQueen was a mystery and left the plot broken-backed, but if you were not too precious Birth of the Dragon offered fair diversions and much to discuss. Music by Reza Safinia and H. Scott Salinas (too heavy on the electric guitar).