Of all the real-life stars and ‘60s pop culture happenings Quentin Tarantino cribs from in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his most controversial portrayal has been that of Bruce Lee—the late martial arts legend played by Mike Moh in the film.
In the film, Brad Pitt’s badass stuntman, Cliff Booth, gets in a bit of a bro fight with Lee. They have a three-round duel: Lee knocks Booth on his butt in Round 1, Booth slams Lee into a car in Round Two, and Round Three is broken up before we see who wins.
Since the release of the movie, several people have expressed concerns about how Lee is represented, some citing one rant where he says he’d make Muhammad Ali “a cripple.” Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, who told The Wrap, “It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father.” Lee continued, “What I’m interested in is raising the consciousness of who Bruce Lee was as a human being and how he lived his life… All of that was flushed down the toilet in this portrayal, and made my father into this arrogant punching bag.”
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s stunt coordinator, Robert Alonzo, even told HuffPost that Brad Pitt had concerns with the scene. But at a press conference for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in Moscow last week, Tarantino finally weighed in. And in typical fashion for the director, he got right to it:
“Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” Tarantino started off. “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 Mohammad Ali?’ Well, yeah he did. Alright? Not only did he say that but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that.”
From there, Tarantino starts to play the whole thing for laughs, arguing that he can do whatever the hell he wants because Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is still technically a fictional movie. Then he gets into Batman-vs.-Iron Man, MJ-vs.-LeBron speculative historical battle territory, railing off Cliff Booth’s hypothetical combat skills.
“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. 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.”
And from there, things devolve to a point where we’re basically watching Tarantino play with Cliff Booth and Bruce Lee action figures in his childhood bedroom.
“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.”