Quentin Tarantino Responds to ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Bruce Lee Controversy
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just crossed $100 million at the domestic box office — making it the first film of the summer not based on an existing IP to cross that mark. But while the film remains a popular hit, it’s not without controversy.
The most hotly-discussed scene in the film remains the one featuring real-life actor and Hollywood icon Bruce Lee. Lee, played by Mike Moh, is holding court on the set of the TV show The Green Hornet, when his arrogant comments tick off Brad Pitt’s stuntman character, Cliff Booth. The two get into a fight; Lee beats up Cliff, then Cliff chucks Lee into a car. The fight is essentially a stalemate at that point, as it’s broken up by other members of The Green Hornet crew.
Some viewers — and even Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon — have objected to the scene, saying it is cruel to Lee, or absurd that Brad Pitt’s character could ever go toe-to-toe with a martial artist of Lee’s caliber. Tarantino had thus far stayed quiet on the controversy and the scene, letting the audience interpret it as they saw fit. But on his latest stop on the Hollywood press tour, he responded to a question about the scene by talking about how he saw the fight.
Regarding the issue of whether Cliff Booth could beat up Bruce Lee, Tarantino said “Brad [Pitt] would not be able to, but Cliff maybe could” and compared that question to asking “Who would win in a fight, Bruce Lee or Dracula?” Because Cliff is a fictional character, Tarantino explained, “If I say Cliff could beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character, then he could beat Bruce Lee up.”
He then went on to explain how he saw those two characters from a combat standpoint:
The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret, he has killed many, many men in World War II in hand-to-hand combat. He is a killer ... If Cliff were fighting Bruce Lee in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden, Bruce Lee would kill him. But if Cliff and Bruce Lee were fighting in the jungle of the Phillippines in a hand-to-hand fight, Cliff would kill him.
Regarding the things Bruce Lee talks about in that scene, Tarantino defended his screenplay by insisting that he didn’t invent a lot of the dialogue; he “heard [Lee] say things like that, to that effect.” He drew Lee’s comments about beating up Muhammad Ali from Lee’s wife’s book, Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew. “She absolutely said it,” Tarantino insisted.
These comments will do exactly nothing to squelch the criticism. Those who were upset about the scene are not going to be satisfied with Tarantino’s remarks, and that’s fine. The one part of what he said that I personally think is important is the notion of this moment as a work of fiction — since the whole movie is about history and fiction and the complex relationship between the two. Without spoiling it, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends on a note that is far more fictional than anything Brad Pitt does to Mike Moh on the recreated set of The Green Hornet. In a sense, you can argue that this fight scene between Cliff and Bruce Lee is almost an essential preamble for Hollywood’s finale — because it establishes that obviously fictional events can occur in this movie between moments of history that we recognize as real.
Here’s the full video of Tarantino talking about the Bruce Lee scene; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in theaters now.
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