Fact or fiction? Quentin Tarantino seems to want it both ways for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” but it’s definitely an inaccurate portrayal of Bruce Lee
There is a need to talk about the controversial Bruce Lee scene in Quentin Tarantino’s film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).
A lot of people were not happy with that scene because it portrays Bruce Lee as an arrogant a–hole who brags and likes to show off by challenging people to spar with him, which is highly inaccurate according to some of those who knew him personally. Including Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon, who openly criticised the portrayal of her late father, basically saying it’s racist and Tarantino probably didn’t know Bruce Lee as a human being.
Usually when a movie, game, commercial or anything that features or make a spoof of Bruce Lee, it’s usually done out of respect for the late legend. Even if it’s a parody, it’s done through Bruce Lee-wannabe characters and they usually kick ass too. But in Once Upon of Time in Hollywood, it’s not like that at all.
Granted, although many of its characters were real-life people in the 60s, the film never claimed to be based on a true story. But does that make it okay to disrespect the late legend that is Bruce Lee?
I remember catching The Da Vinci Code movie at the theater back in 2006. When it ended, half of the people in the soldout hall stayed back crying and praying. I assumed these people were Christians and they were upset by the fictional story of Jesus Christ in that film which was based on Dan Brown’s 2003 novel. Needless to say that this was a way bigger controversy back then but at least the cast and the distributors of the film came out to pretty much say chill, guys, this is just a work of fiction.
However, in the case of Bruce Lee in Once Upon of Time in Hollywood, Tarantino who directed, written and co-produced the film, responded to the criticisms at the film’s press conference in Moscow by doubling down and said, “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy. I mean, when I was, you know, the way he was talking… I’ve… I didn’t just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that to that effect.”
And then I guess it just exploded. I, too, was very appalled by Tarantino’s response ’cause it indicates that he thinks his version of Bruce Lee in his film is somewhat accurate to the late legend’s behaviour in real life and not 100% fiction? Not “alternate reality”? Not a so-called “history rewrite”? If that’s the case, I think he got Bruce Lee wrong. Very wrong.
First thing’s first, don’t misunderstand. I’ve got nothing against Tarantino. I love his films. Even the ones he didn’t direct. While I wouldn’t say Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of my favourites, I still enjoyed it a lot. I’m a fan of both Tarantino and Lee. This actually hurts me both ways. It hurts to see that Lee was portrayed negatively and it hurts to point out that Tarantino was wrong. But yeah, in my opinion, Quentin Tarantino was wrong about Bruce Lee. Fictional or not. And I’m going to tell you why.
First let’s go through how this scene plays outs. Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, go watch the film first and then come back.
The whole scene is a flashback from Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, who’s a stuntman. In it, Bruce Lee is shown to be bragging to all the stuntmen gathered around him at the set of The Green Hornet TV series (1966-67). He claims that he could take on Cassius Clay and beat him. For those who are unfamiliar, Cassius Clay is Muhammad Ali. It was his birth name before he changed it. I didn’t know that either until after I saw the film. Anyway, Muhammad Ali is arguably the Greatest boxer of all time.
In that scene, Lee claims that he could cripple Muhammad Ali. Booth chuckles and says he doesn’t believe that Lee could beat Ali, which triggers Lee to challenge Booth to a sparring match. Right before the fight, Lee is informed that Booth is rumoured to have murdered his own wife. Upon hearing that, Lee’s face appears to be surprised or slightly afraid.
Lee takes a ridiculously exaggerated stance, makes the wooah wooah sound (very over-the-top) and he attacks Booth with his trademark flying kick. Booth just stands there with a grin on his face, gets kicked and falls down. He gets back to his feet while smiling and says, “Not bad. Try that again.” Lee does the exact same move but Booth easily counters and throws Lee into the side of a car.
The fight gets stopped by the stunt coordinators who’re afraid that Lee might get hurt by Booth. Lee tries to disagree with that comment but Booth responds by pointing at the dent of the car. The flashback ends with Booth getting fired from that job because of all that and that’s about it.
Was it justified for Tarantino to have written Bruce Lee as this cocky a–hole? Movie critic, Richard Brody of The New Yorker, said in his review that the film “celebrates white-male stardom (and behind-the-scenes command) at the expense of everyone else.” While I did enjoy the film, I couldn’t agree more on that.
Now let’s comment on the performance of Mike Moh, who played Bruce Lee here. He looks nothing like Bruce Lee but I thought he did a great job talking and delivering lines like Lee did in movies with the hand gestures, facial movements and all that. That’s the only thing I was impressed with in the whole scene.
Although the controversy was not so much about Bruce Lee getting beaten by a white guy, there are a few other minor things in this fight scene that bothered me. For instance, Lee never made those kiai, woooah woooah sounds when he trained or sparred. He only did that for movies and a lot of them were voiceovers done in post-productions. These alone tells me that Tarantino didn’t know enough about Bruce Lee before writing his film and that he most probably did not bother consulting anyone who actually knew Lee.
Lee is known to be a great martial artist and fight choreographer. If you watch his movies and old sparring footage, you know he’d never do the same move so recklessly. And Lee would probably not even use the flying kick in an actual fight. So it wouldn’t have made sense for him to execute another flying kick when Booth was obviously luring him to do so. Even if he did, he probably could’ve countered the counter.
So why did Tarantino believe that Lee was an arrogant showoff? Tarantino continued in his response at the same press conference in Moscow, “And even the thing, if people say, “Well, he never said I could beat up Muhammad Ali. Uh yeah, he did. Alright? Not only did he say that, his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her… The first biography I ever read was Linda Lee’s “Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew” and she absolutely said it.”
But according to those who read the book, the part where it says that Bruce Lee could beat Muhammad Ali was actually quoted from a critic and not Linda Lee. So Tarantino had probably misunderstood what he read. Either that or his memories didn’t serve him well ’cause he probably read that book decades ago.
In reality, the cocky persona of Lee can only be found in movies. He was always confident that’s for sure but I don’t ever remember seeing him talking with arrogance in interviews and behind-the-scenes. His cockiness was his showmanship in movies.
Since the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, some of Bruce Lee’s students came out to criticise the scene as well.
NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jaabar, who was one of Lee’s apprentices and opponent in Game of Death (1973), said, “Of course, Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants. But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being.”
Lee was known to have utmost respect for Muhammad Ali and studied his moves by watching his boxing matches. Lee’s protege and training partner, Dan Inosanto said, “Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshiped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on. In fact, he was into boxing more so than martial arts.”
Apparently, Lee admires Muhammad Ali’s techniques and footwork so much that he incorporated some of those moves into his martial arts system, Jeet Kune Do.
Lee’s biographer Matthew Polly also said that Lee revered Ali and was very kind to the stuntmen he worked with. Often bought them meals, gave them extra cash and looked after their careers. He added that the scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is just not who Bruce Lee is as a person.
Jackie Chan, who was an extra in Enter the Dragon, shared his experience of Lee’s kindness at the set. Apparently Lee wasn’t very talkative too when he met him (refer to the video above for a snippet of this).
So knowing all that, I’d say Bruce Lee certainly did not deserve the treatment he’s got from Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. If you’re a fan or simply knew enough about Bruce Lee, it’s just impossible to find that scene believable or funny at all.
Except for Bruce Lee, almost every other character in the film that’s based on actual people are portrayed quite fairly. The nice ones were nice people. The old blind pervert was an old blind pervert. The scary weirdoes were murderous criminals. But was Bruce Lee a stupid, cocky fella? I mean you can understand why some might feel that it’s not fair. Especially not with Tarantino’s response to the criticisms.
But Tarantino is a great writer and director. Obviously an intelligent guy who, I believe, does a lot of research before he makes a movie. And he’s obviously a Bruce Lee fan himself otherwise he wouldn’t had paid homage to the legend by having his protagonist in Kill Bill (2003) don Bruce Lee’s famous yellow jumpsuit.
So maybe, just, maybe, this was part of his plan to promote Once Upon a Time in Hollywood through controversy and debate. He knew exactly how Bruce Lee still beloved internationally and by deliberately causing a controversy, more people around the world are going to watch the movie just to see that scene and talk about it after on social media and everything and hence help promote the film even more. Pretty much like what I’m doing now… damn it.
Anyway, that’s just my “hypothesis”, which can be rejected (ha-ha). Otherwise, he’s just wrong about Bruce Lee. Too late for him to U-turn now to say it’s actually all fictional and not factual at all. But if he wants, he could always apologise and admit that he misunderstood the great late legend.