Movie Talk

Bruce Lee gets a fantastical origin story in ‘Birth of the Dragon’

Movie Talk

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Enter the Dragon (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Do you remember that time when Bruce Lee took on Chinatown gangsters ... for real?

The story of the martial arts legend veers into "Bubba Ho-Tep" kind of "What If?" territory with "Birth of a Dragon," a decidedly non-traditional kind of biopic from screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele.

"Birth of a Dragon" takes a true-life event (albeit one shrouded in decades' worth of tall tales) as its starting-off inspiration: the duel between Lee and Wong Jack Man, who was China's most famous kung fu master at the time. The battle took place in Oakland in 1964, when San Francisco's Chinatown was controlled by Hong Kong triads.

From there, the story spins off into what could best be described as "biographical fan fiction," as the former opponents team up to beat the holy hell out of the Triads. There's no word on whether the film will also include the harsh reality of Lee's "death by misadventure" at the age of 32, reportedly due to an allergic reaction to meprobamate, a muscle relaxant in Equagesic, which is a common ingredient in painkillers.

The Lee vs. Man fight has been the subject of contradiction and controversy over the years as it was held in private with few witnesses. Lee's widow Linda Lee Cadwell has said that the duel came from tensions over Lee teaching martial arts to Caucasians, which made him unpopular with Chinese martial artists in San Francisco. According to Bruce, Linda and James Lee (an associate of Bruce's; no relation), the fight lasted three minutes and ended with a victory for Bruce.

"I'd gotten into a fight in San Francisco with a Kung-Fu cat, and after a brief encounter the son-of-a-bitch started to run," Bruce Lee had said in an interview with Black Belt -- without specifically naming Wong Jack Man. "I chased him and, like a fool, kept punching him behind his head and back. Soon my fists began to swell from hitting his hard head. Right then I realized [Lee's fighting style at the time] Wing Chun was not too practical and began to alter my way of fighting."

This account is in stark contrast to how the fight went down according to Wong Jack Man, who published his own version in Chinese Pacific Weekly, a Chinese language newspaper in San Francisco. Wong said the fight lasted 20-25 minutes, with the article ending with an invitation to Bruce Lee for a public match if Lee found his version to be unacceptable.

Wong has since expressed regret over fighting Lee, attributing the duel to arrogance on the part of both parties. Wong retired in 2005 after 45 years of teaching martial arts.

"Birth of the Dragon" screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele are no strangers to biography films, having penned Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995) and Michael Mann's "Ali" (2001). They also wrote the screenplay for "Mercury," the long-in-development biopic about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, to which Sacha Baron Cohen is attached to star.

Previous Bruce Lee biography films include "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" (1993), starring Jason Scott Lee, and the more recent "Bruce Lee, My Brother" (2010), a Cantonese-language film starring Aarif Rahman.

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