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Bruce Lee origin story 'Birth of the Dragon' needs more Bruce Lee
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This image released by BH Tilt and WWE Studios shows Yu Xia in "Birth of the Dragon." - photo by Josh Terry
"BIRTH OF THE DRAGON" 2 stars Philip Ng, Yu Xia, Wang Xi'An, Hai Yu, Yue Wu, Billy Magnussen; PG-13 (martial arts violence, language and thematic elements); general release

Birth of the Dragon is just good enough for you to wish it were better, even though you know it really isnt working.

Director George Nolfis film is supposed to tell the story of how kung fu master and movie star Bruce Lee came of age after a battle with a Shaolin monk named Wong Jack Man. Technically, Birth of the Dragon tells that story, but it takes an awfully roundabout way to get there.

The film takes place in 1964, as Lee (Philip Ng) is making a name for himself as a kung fu teacher in San Francisco. Rumors of a TV role are in the air his eventual supporting turn as Kato on The Green Hornet but Lees big-screen fame is still years away.

Its right around this time that Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) arrives, and the rumor is that hes there to rebuke Lee for teaching kung fu to Westerners. One of Lees students an American from Indiana named Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) begins shadowing Wong Jack Man, and after some serious convincing, he begins to train with him.

The dynamic between the two masters is quite unexpected and, for most of the film, Lee comes across as the John Kreese to Wong Jack Mans Mr. Miyagi. Eventually, we learn that Wong Jack Man has come only to punish himself for an unfortunate incident during a demonstration fight back home, though Lees cocky and arrogant behavior makes it clear he could use a lesson or two about his own philosophy.

But rather than focus on Lee which, lets be honest, is what audiences are going to expect when they buy tickets to a movie called Birth of the Dragon writers Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson instead spend considerable time on a plot involving McKee and a young Chinese woman named Xiulan Quan (Jingjing Qu), who essentially works as an indentured servant to a local Chinese crime boss named Auntie Blossom (Xing Jin).

In many ways, McKee is practically the protagonist of the film, dominating the narrative and much of the screen time and, without giving too much away, the legendary battle between Lee and Wong Jack Man ultimately takes a back seat to the resolution for McKees storyline.

The odd narrative structure may not be a deal breaker for some viewers, and the choreographed fight scenes do make for some exciting action. Ng is effective as Lee, matching his own obvious fighting skills with some charismatic personality, even if it pales against Yu Xia's serene take on Wong Jack Man. Birth of the Dragon definitely has its highlights, but its hard to imagine audiences will come away with their full Bruce Lee fix.

For a more complete version of Lees story, audiences will still be better advised to check out 1993s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, which gives you the before and after of the fight and does a better job of explaining where Lee came from and where he eventually went.

"Birth of the Dragon" is rated PG-13 for martial arts violence, language and thematic elements; running time: 103 minutes.
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