Friday, February 23, 2018

Martial arts/Bruce Lee fans: Don't let George Nolfi's BIRTH OF THE DRAGON get by you

While TrustMovies' daughter and grandkids were visiting, daughter -- who is a big martial arts enthusiast and practitioner (as is our son-in-law and their children) -- insisted we watch a movie entitled BIRTH OF THE DRAGON, which all of them had already seen but did not mind viewing again. We did -- and were more than just pleasantly surprised. This is one of those films that got a terrible critical response but that audiences enjoyed more than three times that of the critics. More important, it offers a view of that martial arts idol/icon, Bruce Lee, that knocks him down a peg or two while making clear what a wonder he was, even if, concerning his martial arts philosophy/spirit, this guy had some major learning still to do.

Set in San Francisco back in the 1960s, the movie -- directed by George Nolfi (shown, left) and based on an article, Bruce Lee's Toughest Fight, written by Michael Dorgan, which was then adapted by screenwriters Steven J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson -- proves a model of this kind of film-making: smart, fast-moving and able to beautifully juggle its several themes and plot-lines so that we easily follow them while coming to also care about its several protagonists.

I suspect that some, perhaps many, of Bruce Lee's fans were angry at the depiction of their hero shown here, for Mr. Lee in his younger days, while clearly a martial arts force to contend with, might also have been just too cocky and smart-assed for his own good. Certainly as played (and very well, too) by the fast, skilled and sexy Philip Ng (below), the character seems more than capable of being the champion he so clearly was, while needing a lot of help in the humility/attitude department.

Playing opposite Mr. Ng with equal skill and charisma is the wonderful actor Yu Xia, below, who takes the role of kung-fu master Wong Jack Man -- the fellow Mr Lee must cajole into fighting him -- and fills it so completely with his remarkable combination of strength and modesty that you're likely to become a convert before the movie ends.

Lee imagines that Wong Jack Man has come all the way across the ocean to learn what Lee is up to and perhaps dissuade him from teaching the ancient Asian art to westerners. But things are much more complicated (or, depending upon how you view it, much simpler) that that, and this grand master proves to be just about everything that Lee is not and yet somehow aspires to be.

The fight, up to which everything is leading and which provides the film with its terrific climax and even better denouement, is brought about by two other characters who prove crucial to the plot, as well as to the great charm and sweetness of the film. Lee has a student (Billy Magnussen, above) who falls in love with a newcomer from China (Qu Jingjing, below, left) and wants desperately to help the girl pay off her "debt" to the sleazebags who brought her to the USA and by whom she is now employed.

This love story, in other hands, might come off as standard and obvious, but thanks to the work of the writers and director and especially to Magnussen, who unveils things we've not seen previously in this actor, the character seems remarkably sweet, naive and caring, alternately pig-headed and kind. It's a lovely performance, and so we root for this young couple much more that we do, say, for other more obvious lovers (the pair in the recent and utterly manipulative movie, The Mountain Between Us, for instance).

The fight and its aftermath are also handled with style, grace and intelligence. Connoisseurs will appreciate the "moves" on view, but the heart of the matter is devoted to the how and why of things. Exactly who wins the fight is especially succulent. What we get here is so much better than what we're consistently fed via our mainstream/blockbuster/fantasy-world nonsense.

The Birth of the Dragon is full of kung-fu, all right, but it is also rich with competing philosophies and ideas -- about everything from martial arts to the ways in which we might choose to live our lives. It's a lovely piece of work, and it should have been a lot more popular than it was. But, no: We live in a time of mostly super-hero fantasy trash, it seems. In any case, you can (and should) check this movie out yourself. It's available on home video now -- via DVD or streaming.

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