Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is out in the wild and seems to be drawing a mixed reaction. While some people are very fond of it (including our own Chris Compendio), others are disappointed with the end result. The people most hurt by the film, though, are the friends and family of legendary martial artist Bruce Lee. During a comedic bit in the film, an actor portraying Lee brags about his prowess and even admits he can take down Muhammed Ali, which sounds pretty out of character for the man.
Speaking with Variety, Lee’s protege Dan Inosanto (who starred alongside the master in Game of Death and is one of the few certified teachers of Jeet Kune Do in the world) recalled that Lee worshipped the monumental boxer and would never speak ill of him. “Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshiped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on,” Inosanto said. “In fact, he was into boxing more so than martial arts.”
Inosanto has not seen the final cut of the film but stresses that Lee was never a boastful man outside of his martial arts skills. “He was never, in my opinion, cocky. Maybe he was cocky in as far as martial arts because he was very sure of himself,” said Inosanto. “He was worlds ahead of everyone else. But on a set, he’s not gonna show off.” Inosanto then added that it is highly dubious that any stuntman could have bested Lee in combat.
Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, is also dismayed by the portrayal of her late father. Calling the depiction in Tarantino’s film “disheartening,” she postulates that Tarantino is likely not an actual fan of the acclaimed actor. “I have always suspected that [Tarantino] is a fan of the kung-fu genre and a fan of things that kick ass in cool and stylish ways, which my father certainly did,” Shannon said, “But whether he really knows anything about Bruce Lee as a human being, whether he’s interested in who Bruce Lee was as a human being, whether he admires who Bruce Lee was as a human being, I’m not really sure that I have any evidence to support that that would be true.”
It doesn’t help that Tarantino never consulted Shannon about her father’s inclusion in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Variety questioned Tarantino’s representatives about this issue, but have not heard back as of the time of writing. As for what Shannon hopes happens, she stated, “I hope people will take the opportunity to find out more about Bruce Lee because there’s a lot more to find out and a lot more to get excited about. This portrayal in this film is definitely not that.”
As for my thoughts on the matter, I’m certainly torn. I’ve always appreciated that Tarantino made such a strong push for martial arts films in the West, but his actual movies tend to feel like self-indulgent affairs. I know the world loves Inglorious Basterds, but I find that movie insufferable with how much expository dialogue it has. It doesn’t help that Tarantino still hasn’t made a film that even compares to his 1994 magnum opus Pulp Fiction, seemingly getting worse as the years go on.
I’m also a gigantic fan of Bruce Lee, who remains one of the largest icons in all of martial arts. His techniques and teachings are something I hold close to my heart and I wish more people were aware of the impact of his work. I understand that films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are works of fiction, but it seems wrong to step all over a man’s name long after he has passed away for personal financial gain.
I don’t expect anything to come of this matter, but I’ll echo Shannon’s words. I hope that whatever opinion people leave Once with about Lee that it gets them looking into the films he made. They still hold a lot of charm and charisma and are much more than simple action flicks. They may have dated elements, but you can’t deny that Lee was a force to be reckoned with.