A response to Tarantino’s depiction of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Warning: Contains spoilers.

Firstly I’d like to say there is no disrespect intended to Mike Moh, who does a pretty good job of capturing Bruce Lee’s voice and mannerisms, though the mannerisms (and appearance) are clearly based on Lee’s character in Enter The Dragon, rather than Lee himself.

Tarantino’s Justification

While it’s fair enough for Tarantino to say he can create a fictional character able to defeat Bruce Lee in an alternative universe version of Hollywood, I have though, to question his motives and his justification for Lee’s depiction.

Tarantino says he created his character (Cliff Booth) to be a tough fighter, a Navy Seal, with multiple kills under his belt, someone tougher than Bruce Lee, and he went on to say that while Lee could have beaten Booth under tournament rules, Booth would have beaten Lee in a real fight. He even has his version of Lee complain how bad tournament rules are, how frustrating it was to be restrained by them, like he was longing for a real fight, yet immediately sets rules for their imagined encounter.

It is true that Lee didn’t hold with tournament rules, but that’s exactly why he never fought in them. He did demo’s yes, but all the challenge matches Lee had were real fights, he was a seasoned street fighter who honed his skills for real combat. One of the reasons he left Hong Kong was because of his involvement in illegal no holds barred street fights. He understood the difference between screen fighting and the real thing. Lee may have agreed to a friendly sparring match (off set), but if Booth insisted on a real challenge match, Lee would have been in his element just as much as Booth.

Another point regarding Booth. If he had a number of kills on active duty, I very much doubt many, if any, would have involved unarmed, face to face, hand to hand combat, more likely knives, garrottes, or guns. He would be highly trained yes, but claiming those kills as evidence that he could beat Lee is very suspect.

Also while the scene is a flashback in the movie, it still takes place within the same time frame where Booth is described as having not been a full time stuntman for several years a hard drinker, and with no suggestion that he still trains in any way.

Muhammhed Ali

In his justification, Tarantino argues that Lee was a braggart in real life, and has him saying he’d cripple Ali in a fight. Now Lee, as his daughter Shannon pointed out, as an Asian man in Hollywood, had to work doubly hard to make an impression. I don’t doubt that he had to do the hard-sell in regards to his skills to get anywhere at all, but that was in a professional context. I can’t imagine him putting all that work in to getting a role like Kato, and throwing it away just to prove a point to a stuntman, A point that could have been better made just by him shooting the scene with Booth.

I recall an article with Lee talking about fighting Ali, it was was along the lines of, If he was to fight Ali under Queensbury rules, Ali would win, but if he was to fight him in a no-holds -barred match Lee would likely win, since he could utilise all his weapons, hands, feet, elbows, knees, grappling, pressure point strikes etc, Whereas Ali would still only have his fists. He did acknowledge that if, (as he had also said of Boxer Joe Lewis), Ali landed a punch, he’d be out cold, but he’d have to catch him first. This I think was in the context of talking about his Jeet-Kune-Do philosophy, and the idea that fixed approaches and methods have limitations. He had the utmost respect for Ali as a boxer, and studied him closely.

Speaking of Joe Lewis, Tarantino also took the opportunity in the scene to have Lee bad-mouth the boxers namesake, Karate champion Joe Lewis. The truth is they were good friends, Lewis not only credited Lee with improving his fighting abilities, but also with inspiring him to start the full-contact Karate movement .

Lee vs Booth

Ok so the scene itself. I’d imagine from a narrative point of view, the main reason that you’d have your fictional character beat Bruce Lee in a fight scene would be to establish his reputation as a bad-ass tough guy. I’d also imagine to that end you’d want the Lee character to look as good as possible, so your character would be credible as a tough guy.

This is where the problem lies. Because Lee is actually depicted as a loud mouthed, not too smart, mediocre martial artist. So Booth beating him doesn’t appear to the viewer to be a big deal. Let me put that in context. It’s well documented that Lee had to slow his movements down in order to accommodate many stuntmen who weren’t accustomed to working with martial artists at that time. Lee was able to utilise smart camera angles so that he still looked impressive, but the stuntmen could work within their limits. Not taking anything away from those guys, it was just something new that they hadn’t had to deal with before.

If you recall in Phantom Menace where we see Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson fighting Ray Park (as Darth Maul) you may remember a lot of the fight was shown using a master shot, that is to say full length, side on. The problem with that scene is, using a long take from the side you can see when the blows miss, but see the actors respond as if being hit, because the scene was designed to be shown from different angles. You had to have safe distances as you had an experienced martial artist in Park, working with two actors, but it was choreographed to use over the shoulder shots etc, to make the hits convincing. For whatever reason Lucas stuck largely to the master.

Now when Bruce Lee was working with martial artists, he was able to utilise the master shot to great effect, it showed the full motion, and he was accurate enough so as it looked like he was hitting his opponent hard, and his team could take blows, and had good reflexes. But he also used a range of angles to add drama and impact.

However Tarantino fell into the same trap as George Lucas did in the Darth Maul scene. He shot a fight using mostly a medium master shot with an untrained actor, And while he did change angles to show impact, it still meant Mike Moh had to move at a slower speed that could accommodate the comparatively untrained Brad Pit blocking his punches and catching his kick, so Moh, and subsequently the Lee character looks slow. You can see a promo for the film showing what Moh can actually do Here Interestingly, Moh states that Tarantino went to great lengths to differentiate between Lees real fighting style and his screen style, unfortunately that doesn’t end up on screen, as we see Moh doing jumping flying kicks, and high kicks, in what is supposed to be a real fight, something Lee would never do.

So narratively it doesn’t work, if indeed the intention was to show Booth’s bad-ass credentials. I suspect though that Tarantino’s intention was to simply make Bruce Lee look bad for its own sake.

Tarantino, in his justification of his depiction of Lee also stated that he was pocking fun at him, a little bit of parody. This is my biggest issue with the whole thing. While it is true that Lee faced ridicule in Hollywood, that racism was rife in the industry, and it would absolutely make sense to show white characters attempting to ridicule and demean him, (stress on ‘attempting’) what grates is Tarantino depicting Lee as being deserving of that ridicule. He presents us with a caricature as if it’s true, and then actively applauds Lee’s humiliation.

There are a number of real life people depicted in the film, from Sharon Tate, Steve McQueen and Sam Wanamaker, to Roman Polanski, Charles Manson and members of the Manson Family amongst others. Yes, Sam Wanamaker is shown as a bit eccentric, but it’s done affectionately, nothing about these people’s depiction suggests contempt, or that we are watching an alternative version of Hollywood. (plot twist aside)

Of all the real life people depicted, Bruce Lee is the only person of colour, and the only one who is outright ridiculed. Charles Manson is granted more dignity, respect and gravitas here than Bruce Lee. Think about that.

I understand that Tarantino’s next film may be his last, this Tarantino film is certainly my last.