Minor spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follow below.
Pretty much every new Quentin Tarantino film comes with its own accompanying controversy, and the filmmaker’s latest effort—the 1969-set Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—is no different. But while the Sharon Tate of it all has certainly made many people uncomfortable, it’s not the only aspect of the film that’s ruffling feathers.
At a certain point about halfway through Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we’re shown a flashback sequence in which Brad Pitt’s aging stuntman Cliff Booth challenges Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) to a fight on a backlot. Portions of this scene have been played in the trailers, where Cliff pokes fun at the seriousness with which Lee takes his martial arts ability. In the flashback sequence, the two challenge each other to fisticuffs, and what follows is Cliff more than holding his own and then throwing Lee into a car door just as the fight is broken up.
Many—including Lee’s family—find the sequence troubling, given that Lee worked hard throughout his entire career to be taken seriously by both those inside Hollywood and audiences who were accustomed to stereotypical Asian characters. To find that he’s being used as the butt of a joke, in service of building up a morally grey character nonetheless, has struck some as being in poor taste.
But if the original version of that scene had made it to the finished film, people likely would have been much angrier. As it ends now, the fight gets broken up before a clear “winner” is declared. In speaking with Huffington Post, stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo revealed that the original version of the scene ended with Cliff emerging a more clear-cut winner, which declared Lee the loser. This didn’t sit well with either Alonzo or Pitt:
“I know that Brad had expressed his concerns, and we all had concerns about Bruce losing,” Alonzo recalled. “Especially for me, as someone who has looked up to Bruce Lee as an icon, not only in the martial-arts realm, but in the way he approached philosophy and life, to see your idol be beaten is very disheartening. It really pulled at certain emotional strings that can incite a little anger and frustration as to how he’s portrayed. … There’s a certain mythology and mysticism about who Bruce Lee is, which is understandable. Being an Asian American myself, I definitely related to how Bruce was a symbol of how Asians should be portrayed in movies, instead of the old Breakfast at Tiffany’s model that was really prevalent back in the day. … I had a difficult time choreographing a fight where he lost. Everyone involved was like, ‘How is this going to go over?’ Brad was very much against it. He was like, ‘It’s Bruce Lee, man!’”
Alonzo and Pitt successfully changed Tarantino’s mind on the matter:
Round 3 of the fight would have been a much longer battle in which both men kept going at each other, with Cliff eventually making what Alonzo called a “cheap-shot move” that put Bruce on his butt. But the point wasn’t to turn Bruce into the underdog, Alonzo told Tarantino. Rather, it was simply to “explain to the audience the level at which Cliff was [operating].” So Tarantino agreed to have the Green Hornet stunt coordinators break up the brawl before the third round, meaning no proper victor could be declared.
And even still, audiences and Bruce Lee fans are unhappy about the way the scene plays out, so thank goodness we didn’t get the original version. While one can see Tarantino’s intention behind the scene—to basically craft one big joke in which an iconic fighter gets roughed up by one of the film’s aging, easy-going protagonists—the subtext of the execution is disconcerting when considering Bruce Lee’s history and the treatment of Asian Americans onscreen at the time that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set. It doesn’t quite land the way maybe Tarantino had envisioned.
For more on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, click on the links below:
- Mike Moh Talks ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, Bruce Lee, and Working with Tarantino
- Watch: Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino Explain the Character of Rick Dalton
- The Collider.com Podcast: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
- Why I’m Still Wrestling with the Ending of ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’