The milieu from which Bruce Lee emerged to become the world’s first martial-arts superstar — both as a film performer and a proponent-teacher — was probably as fascinating as the man himself. The screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson and the director George Nolfi only intermittently manage to breathe credible cinematic life into that milieu in “Birth of the Dragon,” which is set in late ’60s San Francisco, where, the movie tells us, Lee taught kung fu. (It was actually Oakland.)
The movie’s linchpin is a real-life battle between Lee (Philip Ng) and a Shaolin monk, Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia), which an opening title says was reputed to have been spurred by Wong’s objection to Lee’s “kung fu for all” ethos. In the movie’s view, Lee’s real problem is his bluff arrogance. Wong’s approach is more spiritual, less egocentric. This attracts one of Lee’s white students, the overly aggressive Steve (Billy Magnussen), who happens to be in love with a young Asian immigrant who’s being groomed for a concubine’s life by a female boss. Steve can’t fight for her, but the boss is interested in staging an event that can generate some gambling profits. You see where this is going. For the sake of their pal, Wong and Lee agree to test each other in battle. It’s clear that Wong is right about Lee’s egotism being a limitation, but the question is whether Lee will get it.
The “West Side Story” romance angle is the least interesting part of the movie, so it’s frustrating that so much time is spent on it. “Birth of the Dragon” is ambitious: It wants to be a character study, an explication of martial arts philosophy and an action picture. (The battle scenes are presented in a mix of slow motion with super-clear fast-shutter shots and they’re not always enhanced by this approach.) But the film never really gets fully juiced until the climax, when rivalries are put aside and the two very charismatic leads get on the same side to kick some righteous butt.