Movies & TV / News

Quentin Tarantino Defends Characterization of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

August 13, 2019 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Bruce Lee

Warning: Minor spoilers follow for Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.

There’s been a bit of controversy around how Bruce Lee is portrayed in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, and Quentin Tarantino is defending the portrayal. The late martial arts icon appears in a flashback scene, played by Mike Moh, in which Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth is on the set of The Green Hornet. In the scene, which sees Cliff hold his own in a sparring match with Lee, the latter is portrayed as an arrogant braggart who talks down Muhammad Ali, among other things.

The portrayal, as you might expect, didn’t go over well with Lee’s family. Specifically, his daughter Shannon has spoken out about the scene, as has his protégé/training partner Dan Inosanto. As Variety reports, Inosanto said, “He was never, in my opinion, cocky. Maybe he was cocky in as far as martial arts because he was very sure of himself. He was worlds ahead of everyone else. But on a set, he’s not gonna show off. Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshiped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on.”

Discussing the film at a press junket, Tarantino addressed the complaints by saying that his characterization of the legend isn’t exactly inaccurate. “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” he said. “The way he was talking, I didn’t just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that, to that effect. If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,’ well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that.”

Tarantino also addressed those who were unimpressed with Cliff holding his own against Lee and ending up in a tie after he throws Lee into a car. He said:

“Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad [Pitt] would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could. If you ask me the question, ‘Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?’ It’s the same question. 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. If Cliff were fighting Bruce Lee in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden, Bruce would kill him. But if Cliff and Bruce were fighting in the jungles of the Philippines in a hand-to-hand combat fight, Cliff would kill him.”

The controversy, such as it is, hasn’t hurt Once Upon a Time much, as it has thus far grossed $101.9 million domestically and $109.6 million worldwide after just two weekends.