A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Birth of the Dragon is about young Bruce Lee -- specifically, a life-changing 1964 encounter he had with Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man. There's plenty of bloodless martial arts fighting, as well as other fighting and a scene with thugs destroying a laundromat. A man is hit in the groin with a baseball, and characters sometimes have bruises. Language includes a use of "s--t" and a use of "a--hole," plus "ass" and "d--k." A man smokes a cigarette in one scene. Sex isn't much of an issue, though a couple is shown in tender moments, holding hands, etc. Prostitution is referred to as a potential threat to a young woman. Lee is still an icon, and his fans will want to see this, but they'll likely be disappointed, given the largely negative portrayal of their hero and the movie's overall whitewashing -- that is, the needless inclusion of a white hero to help tell the story.
What's the story?
In BIRTH OF THE DRAGON, it's 1964 in San Francisco, and kung fu phenomenon Bruce Lee (Philip Wan-Lung Ng) hasn't yet broken into movies or TV. But he's well-known and beloved by his students, despite his youthful pride and arrogance. In China, Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) nearly kills a man during a martial arts demonstration and comes to San Francisco to heal his soul by washing dishes in a restaurant. One of Lee's students, Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen), befriends the monk and begins to see his ways of teaching as more centered than Lee's. At the same time, Steve falls for a pretty young woman, Xiulan (Jingjing Qu), who's being held prisoner by a Chinatown triad. He's offered a deal: If he can persuade Bruce Lee to fight the monk, then Xiulan will be freed. The two masters agree to the fight, but the outcome won't be quite what anyone expected.
Is it any good?
Feeling like a cheap, quickie effort, this story of Bruce Lee's early days has some good moments, but it makes the fatal mistake of inserting a white character to drive the plot and get the girl. The martial arts scenes aren't uniformly terrible; they're blessed with choreography by the great Corey Yuen. Ng does a reasonable job imitating Lee, and Yu's Wong Jack Man is appealing, but that's about all Birth of the Dragon does right. It's mostly a hack job, unworthy of its legendary subject.
White director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) apparently saw no problem with simplifying and sidelining the story's compelling Asian characters in favor of a boring white one whose romantic arc is somewhat silly. Worse, Lee's supposed character arc begins by showing the icon as arrogant and short-sighted. And then his redemption, which is mentioned, isn't shown and so doesn't really click. Lee's many fans will surely be disappointed (or even insulted) by this; they'd be better served by watching Lee himself in Enter the Dragon ... or just about anything else.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Birth of the Dragon's use of martial arts violence. Does it follow certain rules? When do characters cross the line? What are the consequences?
What is "whitewashing"? Why do you think filmmakers decided to use a white character to help tell this particular story? What effect does that decision have?
Why is Bruce Lee so beloved and well-known? What did he do, and how does he continue to inspire people? Do you consider him a role model? What were his flaws?
How does this movie compare with other depictions of Lee?
- In theaters: August 25, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: November 21, 2017
- Cast: Philip Wan-Lung Ng, Xia Yu, Billy Magnussen
- Director: George Nolfi
- Studio: BH Tilt
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts
- Run time: 89 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: martial arts violence, language and thematic elements
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.
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