Spoilers ahead for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
Like pretty much all Quentin Tarantino movies, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has invited its fair share of controversies. While the studio probably expected the ending to garner an intense response (hence the desire to crack down on spoilers), there’s also been a lot of talk surrounding the scene involving Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). In the scene, stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) flashes back to when he met Lee and the two fought to a draw, which some saw as insulting to Lee’s legacy—to have him appear arrogant and cocky only to be taken down by some stuntman. Some have argued that this is just Cliff providing a sheen to his own memory, but while doing press for the film in Moscow, Tarantino broke down his depiction of Lee and why he was evenly matched with Cliff.
With regards to his depiction of Lee as cocky and arrogant, Tarantino explains [via Variety]:
“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 Muhammad Ali,’ well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that,”
Of course, the issue isn’t with Lee being cocky (a lot of great athletes have that arrogance, and people rarely hold that bravado against them since they have the skills to back up their words). The issue is with Cliff being able to hold his own against a martial arts legend. Tarantino continues:
“Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad [Pitt] would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could,” said Tarantino. “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.”
Tarantino concluded, “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.”
The purpose of the scene is to make Cliff seem lethal, a payoff that lends credence to the accusation that Cliff killed his wife, but also helps sell the conclusion of the movie when Cliff kills Manson Family members. However, the controversy of the scene doesn’t deal with who would win, but why this comes at the expense of Bruce Lee. For a film that clearly adores Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a talent that died far too young, Lee is not afforded the same glowing treatment. Instead, he serves to burnish Cliff’s image, and in so doing, is rendered smaller. For fans of Lee, that’s where they take umbrage.