How do you use Bruce Lee to make an anti-Bruce Lee movie? When I first saw the previews of Birth of the Dragon, I was planning to be the first one in line for it. A brand new movie about Bruce Lee? Hell yeah! But after watching those clips a few times, I began thinking, 'Well, they're really making Bruce seem kinda cocky in this one. How little did I know.
A couple of days ago I went to see it with my daughter. The first opening scene of the movie starts with Wong Jack Man, he is portrayed as a "Shaolin Monk" competing against an opponent during a demonstration bout.
Immediately we are given the stark contrast between Wong's bright and colorful opening training
scene and Bruce Lee's dark and gritty opening training scene. As the story continues, it becomes increasingly clear that Bruce is being portrayed as the bad guy. It's true Bruce was boastful and cocky - as his family, friends, students, and biographers attest - but this film version of Bruce truly lays it on pretty thick. He is the completely disrespectful asshole, and Wong is the very honorable and wise Shaolin Monk - in reality, he was not an actual Shaolin Monk.
Wong is portrayed as being so deadly, he not only almost kills his opponent during the opening demonstration bout with a jumping kick, he also could have used that particular kick on Bruce towards the end of their fight, but chose not to, because he's wiser than the hot headed Bruce. It's actually the second time he chooses to hold back a deadly blow, the first being after he gets Bruce into a somewhat devious headlock. This film's dramatic fight scene does not leave room for any speculation, or debate about who may have actually won. It doesn't merely suggest Wong Jack Man was superior, it screams it. It turns out there was a good reason for this bait and switch.
Many months prior to watching this movie, I read an article about the Wong Jack Man version of the fight, and as the battle between them began in the film, I knew the producers were following that particular version. (Bruce's opening finger jab that leaves a scratch above Wong's eye and initiates the fight.) I later learned from a Facebook friend that the consultant of this movie was none other than Wong Jack Man himself.
No one from the Bruce Lee camp was consulted, and Lee's own daughter, actress and CEO of Bruce Lee Enterprises, Shannon Lee, refers to the George Nolfi directed flick as a "travesty". In an article from ASAM News, she states, "I share your concerns and want to make it clear that Birth of the Dragon was made without my family’s consent or involvement. I have seen the film (out of necessity alone) and, in my opinion and the opinions of many (see link), this film is a travesty on many levels. I think this film is a step backward for Asians in film not to mention that the portrayal of Bruce Lee is inaccurate and insulting. I am disappointed that such a project would be funded and produced." Thankfully, Shannon Lee is currently working on "the definitive Bruce Lee biopic" and I for one hope she brings us something exciting to celebrate. See the link below for the ASAM News article.
In fairness, Shannon's article may be referring to the original version of Birth, which was quickly edited after its initial screening to include more Lee and less "Steve" - the Caucasian actor Billy Magnussen. Early rumors were Steve's character was supposed to represent the late Steve McQueen who was a student of Bruce Lee. However, even with Steve moved into the backseat, Wong Jack Man still drives this vehicle and Bruce is the secondary passenger.
It was the fight scenes, including the main battle, that made this experience tolerable. I thought they were interesting and entertaining. For instance, the sight of Bruce and Wong taking on the Chinese mafia was a fun fantasy to watch - Bruce actually uses his 1 inch punch on one of the thugs.
But ultimately the overall portrayal of Bruce Lee's character is the biggest disappointment. Don't advertise Bruce Lee and then give us Wong Jack Man. Those who decided to watch this movie didn't do so because they wanted to see Wong as the hero and Bruce Lee as the villain. Utilizing only Wong as the main consultant removed any and all balanced debate about what may have actually occurred. Perhaps this film would have performed better at the box office if it was titled, "Wong Jack Man Battles" or "WJM v BL". Or maybe, the title is correct, and Wong is the "Dragon" being referred to?
For more info please use the links below.
Bruce Lee Vs Wong Jack Man
Leo Fong Discusses the fight and the movie Birth of the Dragon:
A bit more balanced take on the fight: