In a recent press conference in Russia for his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, director Quentin Tarantino defended the film’s portrayal of iconic martial artist Bruce Lee. In one scene during the movie, Brad Pitt’s character Cliff Booth gets into a squabble with Lee on a Hollywood set. Lee is seen boasting about his martial arts prowess and declares that he could defeat Muhammed Ali. The two then fight and it appears as if Booth wins the brawl, making Lee out to be a weakling. They continue to fight and the movie cuts away before anything more is seen.
To Tarantino, that portrayal is accurate. He claims Lee was “kind of an arrogant guy,” and went on to say, “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.” Tarantino added that Lee’s widow, Linda Lee, wrote as much in her first published biography.
Without providing the exact quote, Tarantino then shifted to talking about the other aspects of the scene people are upset over. According to many fans, Lee would have destroyed a man like Booth. Whether his skills are fact or fiction, Lee is known as one of the greatest martial artists to ever live and it does seem unlikely that Brad Pitt would ever get blows in on him. “Brad would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could,” Tarantino stressed.
“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.” That’s kind of a cop-out answer, but I can see the logic there. Fictional characters possess abilities that mere mortals do not, which gives them an edge in stories for thematic purposes. Still, Bruce Lee would totally be able to destroy Dracula, c’mon!
Continuing further, Tarantino elaborated that Booth is a retired Green Beret soldier. Lee may have been able to handle thugs on the street and other trained martial artists, but Booth is (to him) in a totally different league. “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.”
Throwing fans something of a bone, Tarantino admitted that Lee would kill Booth in a brawl if it were held at Madison Square Garden. If they were both in the jungles of the Philippines, though, “Cliff would kill him.” I’m not sure how the conversation shifted to concocting fictional scenarios, but I guess Bruce Lee has ascended to the status of a literary figure.
My biggest issue with this whole debacle (if you could even call it such) is that Tarantino allegedly never corroborated with Lee’s family on his portrayal. Instead of getting some insight from Lee’s daughter, Shannon, he created a parody of the man to serve some point in his story. I don’t think people will deny that Bruce Lee wouldn’t be able to take on the likes of Darth Vader, for instance, but to see Brad Pitt taking out the most legendary figure in martial arts is disrespectful. Couple that with dialogue that makes him out to be a total asshole and it’s a recipe for disaster.