One of the memorable moments in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is when Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth goes head to head with the legendary Bruce Lee played by Mike Moh. This scene polarized audiences and many criticized Tarantino for his portrayal of the martial arts and Hollywood icon — many saw it as arrogant and inauthentic. During a press conference in Russia for the film, he defended his take on Lee.
Tarantino claimed that Lee was “kind of an arrogant guy.” He said that he didn’t make up the things he wrote in the script. “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 it.”
The brawl on set between Lee and Booth in the movie was also subject to scrutiny. Many claimed that Lee would annihilate someone like Booth, but the film left it up to interpretation, cutting their fight before it was determined who would win the best of three.
“Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could,” Tarantino said. “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.”
He added that Cliff Booth is a Green Beret and that he has killed many men in combat (and the movie makes us believe he may have killed his wife too). Tarantino said, “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.”
When it comes down to it, Tarantino claimed that Lee would kill Booth in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden. However, if the two of them were brawling in the jungle of the Philippines, “Cliff would kill him.”
Many have enjoyed Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and its revisionist history take on the Tate murders. Moh, who is a martial artist, appeared on the New Hollywood Podcast and said he was honored to play Lee and hope that he paid tribute in the best way possible.
Shannon Lee, the daughter of the martial arts legend and is the head of the Bruce Lee estate, talked to Deadline before the film came out and said that no one from Tarantino’s camp ever reached out to her about including her father’s likeness in the movie. “If they contacted me, I could be completely unreasonable and a pain in the ass and make all kinds of ridiculous demands — but they don’t know that I’m not going to do that. A lot of times, the best practice is ‘we’ll just stay away from that so we don’t have to even open that can of worms.’”
“With Tarantino’s film, to not have been included in any kind of way, when I know that he reached out to other people but did not reach out to me, there’s a level of annoyance — and there’s part of me that says this is not worth my time and my energy. Let’s just see how the universe deals with this one,” she told Deadline.
After seeing the movie, Lee told the Los Angeles Times that the depiction of her father was “disrespectful” and “a mockery” of her late father’s legacy.
“I understand this is a Tarantino film, that the movie characters are ‘antiheroes’ and this has his characteristic style and is another of his rage fantasies,” she said. “While I understand that the mechanism in the story is to make Brad Pitt’s character out to be such a badass that he can beat up Bruce Lee, the script treatment of my father as this arrogant, egotistical punching bag was really disheartening — and, I feel, unnecessary.”
Watch Tarantino’s press conference interview below.