Quentin Tarantino defends Bruce Lee’s depiction in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The director’s most recent film, which starred Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie, was released last month. Although the reviews have been largely positive, there has been controversy surrounding the way that Lee was portrayed.
The scene in question features a fight between Lee (Mike Moh) and Pitt’s Cliff Booth on the set of Green Hornet. While Lee easily trounces Cliff in the first round, the aging stuntman turns the tables on him in the second. The fight is broken up before a real winner is determined, but the larger issue is the version of Lee that Tarantino has written into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, appreciated Moh’s performance, she was unhappy with the portrayal of Bruce Lee, feeling that he was depicted as “an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air.” One particular point of contention is Lee’s assertion that he could win a fight against Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali). Shannon maintains the actor held Ali in the highest regard and never would’ve made such a statement.
Now, The Wrap reports that Tarantino has fired back at the criticism, saying Lee was “kind of an arrogant guy.” He continued, that not only would Lee have said he could take on Ali, but the actor had previously stated just that. The director mentioned reading this in a 1975 biography written by Lee’s wife, Linda. Tarantino further explained his motivations by saying:
“It’s a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up. The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret. He has killed many men in WWII in hand to hand combat. What Bruce Lee is talking about in the whole thing is that he admires warriors. He admires combat, and boxing is a closer approximation of combat as a sport. Cliff is not part of the sport that is like combat, he is a warrior. He is a combat person.”
Tarantino went on to say that Lee would trounce Cliff in a martial arts tournament, but in an actual hand-to-hand combat situation, Cliff would have the advantage.
Tarantino does appear to be misremembering Linda’s quote about her husband beating up Muhammad Ali. Matthew Polly, author of Bruce Lee: A Life, tweeted that the auteur was referring to something said by Linda when she was quoting a TV critic, as opposed to a statement made by Lee himself. Another biography of Lee, written by his Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse, described Lee’s admiration of Ali, but also made it clear the actor knew he couldn’t defeat the famed boxer. Lee was said to have stated, “Look at my hand. That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.”
While Tarantino does appear to be wrong in claiming that Lee thought that he was capable of beating Ali, that’s not really the point. The director is defending one aspect of the scene, but seems to be missing the main issue. Although the movie is populated with real people, as well as fictional characters, they are all fighting on Tarantino’s playground, meaning that it’s ultimately up to him who emerges victorious. However, despite earlier criticisms, Sharon Tate was treated with reverence and even actors such as Steve McQueen or Jay Sebring, who also only had minor roles, were never used as punchlines. The fight between the martial artist and the stuntman did go a long way in establishing Cliff as the capable fighter he would prove himself to be by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's end. However, it seems that there should’ve been a way to do this that would’ve treated Bruce Lee with a bit more respect, rather than reducing him to a caricature.