It might be a fun idea to think up ways to tell the same basic biographical story depicted in Birth of the Dragon - in 1964, on the brink of his explosion into pop culture stardom with TV's The Green Hornet in 1966, San Francisco-based Wing Chun master Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) squared off with visiting Shaolin master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) in a private fight, potentially related to Lee's habit of teaching kung fu to white Americans - that are more overtly awful than the way Birth of the Dragon goes about telling it. And nothing obviously outrageous like "the match is interrupted by alien robots, and Lee and Wong must set aside their differences to save the Earth", which would anyways end up making a substantially better film.

Though really, how is this not outrageous: it's a story about Bruce Lee, but it's actually a story about Wong Jack Man, but it's actually actually a story about Steve McQueen, who trained under Lee for a while and became his good friend, but in fact it's actually about a weird McQueen surrogate named "Steve McKee" (Billy Magnussen), who needs to plead with Wong to trick Lee into a fight so that the Chinatown gangsters holding McKee's Chinese girlfriend Xiulan (Qu Jingjing) will release her in exchange for the money they'll be able to make on taking bets. And it's very clear that McKee is not McQueen, but Magnussen has been directed by George Nolfi to act in a sort of half-assed McQueen-esque register with the Midwestern baritone and the way of dropping his head a little bit, so that when he looks straight ahead it's also like he's glancing up. But also to not be too much like McQueen. Or maybe it's just that nobody could be too much like McQueen, who is after all one of the greatest of mid-century movie stars.

The point being, Birth of the Dragon cares a hell of a lot more about its ersatz McQueen than about Bruce Lee, which is impossible to justify in many different ways. And it's entirely possible that this was already the fatal blow: that nothing would be able to redeem the movie once that central decision had been made by writers Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson. Still, credit goes to the filmmakers for not resting on their laurels; Birth of the Dragon is bad for plenty of other reasons too. The script is jammed to the bursting point with "biopic dialogue", those hideous tone-deaf insertions of exposition that serve no real purpose other than to remind is that this is Inspired By The True Story, and the writers took great journalistic zeal in getting the details right while horribly botching the broad strokes. The film makes an extremely big deal about Lee as the hot shit kid of 23, and Wong as the established master with years of experience (in reality, the men were about the same age), and then cast 38-year-old Ng to play Lee, looking every bit of his age, and turning the character's intense youthful passion into an embarrassing joke coming out of the mouth of a nearly middle-aged man in a shitty bowl haircut. Besides which, most every performance other than Xia's is some degree of awful caricature, with the obvious worst-in-show being Simon Yin as Vinnie Wei, Lee's affable fuck-up student and McKee's best friend, who serves to do little but explain things and crack dumb jokes.

To be strictly fair, none of the film's aesthetic faults are entirely its own. The idea behind this seems to have been less to do a purely factual Lee biopic (which is good, because it's pretty thin on facts), than to do a riff on Lee's life inspired by Lee's own movies. And those are not altogether great cinema - in fact, they can be sort of bad, bogged down by lousy acting, trite plots, shoddy cinematography. Hell, Birth of the Dragon only has two of those: Amir Mokri's cinematography is perfectly satisfactory in its slightly colorless urban naturalism. The point being, the sins of the film are reflections of Lee's own filmography, and generations of martial arts and action fans have contentedly forgiven those.

Aye, well, the difference is in part Bruce Lee himself, one of the most charismatic men to ever step in front of a movie camera, even if we ignore his astonishing physical training and capabilities. It's no surprise that Birth of the Dragon lacks the astonishing physical pyrotechnics of a Lee film, of course, though we might fairly ask the question: if you don't have a lead actor capable of at least approximating Lee's darting, dazzling speed and physical control, why bother making a biopic about him? But nonetheless, Ng is certainly a fine martial artist in his own right, like the wiry tightness of Lee's build, but fairly good at mimicking several of his characteristic physical quirks. Cory Yuen's choreography is fine, and Nolfi is at least decent at finding ways of framing the action. It's certainly cut too fast, giving us little chance to appreciate the moves in their full complexity, but the cutting isn't arbitrary, at least.

Still, it's not any particularly more impressive than any other given martial arts picture. Only in the opening scene, with Xia and Xi'An Wang staging an exhibition match between Wong and a Tai Chi master in a valley somewhere in China, does the film rise above "perfectly adequate": the addition of the bold colors of the Chinese landscape, and the brightness of the fighters' robes, adds a bit of visual interest that none of the other fight scenes possess.

That being said, the rest of the fights are enjoyable enough that it's not possible to simply toss Birth of the Dragon into the gutter: Ng and Xia are both admirable talents, and even if the film lets them down entirely as far as their characters are concerned, when it shuts up with the plot and the whole McKee bullshit, and just lets them move, it manages to drum up something worth watching. Not enough to actually watch the movie, you understand, but it's at least possible to survive the experience if you somehow get trapped in a room where it's playing.