To mix in any conversation about martial arts films the question of just which Bruce Lee biopic is the best to date, is an instant invite to copious amounts fanboy scream-debating and shouting. Possibly in all caps. It gets crazy and little stupid at times, even more so as we live in an age when the long late martial arts and film icon is still a popular source to conjure on-going ideas for film and television.
It's amazing to think of what Bruce Lee accomplished — and when. Years before martial arts action became a staple of Hollywood and global cinema, and years before Asian-Americans became a strong demographic presence in California, Bruce Lee brought the majesty and discipline of centuries-old combat to America, and added a little showmanship of his own. It wasn't easy.
In 1960s Oakland, a hotbed of hippie counterculture and radical politics, young Bruce Lee (Philip Wan-Lung Ng) does some radical cultural work of his own, teaching a martial arts style he himself developed. The Bay Area Chinese community frowns on his sharing of ancient ways with non-Chinese, but Lee is a rebel. He's intrigued when rugged white American Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) walks into the class. McKee is a film actor and a risk-taker who proves an apt pupil, and Lee, fascinated by the American's line of work, is equally eager to learn the way of motion pictures.
But Shaolin martial arts master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) has been sent from China to stop Lee's heretical education initiative. And so things lead towards an epic showdown between Lee and Wong — with the very legacy of Chinese tradition at stake.
Writers Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson craft engaging macho banter that Ng and Magnussen make the most of, and director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) expertly transitions the story of budding friendship into a thrilling account of the faceoff that made Bruce Lee famous.
Lee fought to make secret knowledge available to the whole world. To watch Birth of the Dragon is to be transported back to a crucial turning point in the cultures of both America and China.