For someone who was gone too soon at the age of 32, Bruce Lee sure achieved near mythical status. But as Lee’s daughter, Shannon, pointed out in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter in 2015, no film about her legendary father has completely captured the essence of the man behind the myth.
A year later, the Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon, directed by George Nolfi, was released. It stars Philip Ng, Xia Yu, and Billy Magnussen, and is supposedly about a young Lee (played by Ng) who challenges the kung fu master Wong Jack Man (played by Yu).
The film, unfortunately, does not give justice whatsoever to Lee, the master martial artist and to Lee, the man. Instead, it depicts Lee as more of a sidekick than superstar, a mere footnote to the exploits of Lee’s fictional American friend named Steve McKee (played by Magnussen). This unfortunate juxtaposition of roles, whether done deliberately or a mere oversight, was justifiably criticised by those who viewed the film as reported by Catherine Shoard who penned a review for The Guardian.
The film revolves more on the romantic travails of, a fictional American named McKee, who meets a waitress and falls in love with her, unaware that said waitress works for the local crime lord. So of course, McKee gets in trouble and Lee’s character and his supposedly history-altering rivalry with the kung fu master become mere sideshows. This is despite the trailer (see below) promoting the film as very much Lee and Wong’s story.
What’s worse, is that Lee is depicted as a cool-as-ice, nearly dimensionless, emotionless individual who makes a 180 degree turn to quintessential jerk—insecure, jealous, and vengeful—the moment he is confronted by the Wong challenge. This portrayal alone would have been enough reason for the younger Lee to slam the biopic as “a travesty on so many levels,” which she rightfully did as a Quartz article on the film recounts.
The fight scenes between Lee and Wong could have been the saving grace for the film, considering Lee’s reputation as close to a fighting machine and Wong’s standing as a kung fu master. But of course Nolfi and his team found a way to mess those up, too, as Lee and Wong’s supposed bare-knuckle, fight-to-the-death battle looked nothing like a conflict between two of the finest martial artists ever to walk this planet.
In short, Birth of the Dragon was a complete disaster, perhaps even a blatant money-grab, hoping to make a few millions off of Lee’s near-universal appeal and popularity.
The film, though, would not have been the first to try and profit from Lee’s legend. There have been countless movies about Lee, like Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Bruce Lee, My Brother (produced by Lee’s brother, Robert). Gaming companies have also rode on the seemingly never-waning popularity of Lee. Datasoft released the game Bruce Lee way back in 1984 for the Atari 8-bit family. Virgin Interactive Entertainment, meanwhile, released Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, a video game based on the eponymously titled film. The Slingo slot game Bruce Lee is inspired by the master himself, and makes use of images that are distinctly associated with Lee including his likeness, his signature vertical split pose, and several items connected to Lee’s martial arts legacy such as the shuriken and the dagger. The most famous example in the gaming industry is the character of Lee in the Tekken franchise which is a respectful homage to the master.
At the end of the day, Shannon Lee was right: no film has captured the essence of Bruce Lee. Fans of her father are no doubt hoping that the next biopic about the Jeet Kune Do founder will finally be the one to give justice to the life and ties of the older Lee.
At the end of the day, Shannon Lee was right: no film has captured the essence of Bruce Lee. Fans of her father are no doubt hoping that the next biopic about the Jeet Kune Do founder will finally be the one to give justice to the life and times of the older Lee.