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‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’: Why the Brad Pitt and Bruce Lee Fight Is Confusing Moviegoers

A key sequence involving Bruce Lee and Brad Pitt's character has been the subject of controversy — and timeline confusion. But that one is easier to assess.

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Sony Pictures

[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”]

Of all the reimagined bits of history that round out Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” there’s one sequence that continues to divide moviegoers. The scene — a wild, on-set, hand-to-hand battle between Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth and Mike Moh as the legendary Bruce Lee — involves plenty of elements worth unpacking, including the use of a historical figure. But some audiences are struggling to understand where it fits in the film’s narrative.

The Bruce Lee/Cliff Booth fight has become one of the film’s biggest points of controversy since “Hollywood” hit theaters late last month. Both Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee and protégé Dan Inosanto have spoken out against Tarantino for his portrayal of the martial arts and acting legend in the scene.

Actor Mike Moh, who plays Lee in the film, recently admitted that he was conflicted at first about taking on the part as written, owing to his long-standing affection for Lee as a Hollywood trailblazer. Just this week, “Hollywood” stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo explained that Pitt himself helped reshape the sequence, originally written as much longer — and with Lee losing — to better honor Lee’s legacy.

Both Moh and Alonzo stressed the same point: The scene isn’t meant to diminish Lee’s skills, but to show just how talented Cliff himself is (meaning, tough enough to go up against a titan like Lee). That’s why the scene’s placement in the film, both in terms of where it falls in the sprawling timeline that “Hollywood” follows and through whose perspective it is filtered, is so key.

Throughout the film, Cliff and Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) mention an incident that happened on the set of “The Green Hornet,” something so bad that a stunt coordinator (Kurt Russell) will likely never hire Cliff for another job (even if Rick is acting in the production, even if he asks quite nicely). When Rick goes to work on the television show “Lancer,” Cliff heads back to Rick’s house to fix his television antenna, during which he recalls the “Green Hornet” fight.

Even that piece of the timeline has confused fans, some of whom believe that Cliff is fantasizing about either a) beating up Bruce Lee on the set of “Lancer” (a show he was not on, a confusion based on the fact that Rick is filming on that series and is not able to get Cliff a job on it) or b) wholesale imagining a battle with the superstar that would prove Cliff’s abilities. Neither of those are true.

In illustrating another point about the limits of Wikipedia, journalist Scott Meslow pointed out a salient argument involving “Hollywood,” one that continues to take shape on the film’s Wikipedia page, which can be edited by anyone. As Meslow notes, one edit says that Cliff “remembers” fighting Lee, while another changes it to “daydreams about.”

As of this writing, the description of the scene now reads Cliff “reminisces on a sparring match he had on the set of ‘The Green Hornet’ with Bruce Lee.” Even for fans invested enough in the film to update a sizable Wikipedia page, confusion reigns. But it doesn’t need to.

The scene, remembered by Cliff, is a flashback to what previously happened on the set of “The Green Hornet.” Again, it’s an incident that has been previously mentioned in the narrative, and one that helps explain why Cliff is having trouble getting gigs. It’s not on the set of “Lancer,” it’s not wholly made up, and it also exists outside the general timeline that guides the film.

And yet while the basic truth of the incident is probably real (well, “real” in a fictionalized movie that rewrites Hollywood history), it’s important to remember this is still a story being filtered through Cliff’s own memories and biases. It’s a scene meant to reaffirm how skilled Cliff is, not to diminish what Lee was, with an aging-out Cliff recalling an incident that led directly to his downtrodden state.

Told that way, of course he’s the heavy-hitting tough guy who literally throws Bruce Lee into a car, providing sufficient justification for Cliff to be tossed off set but still feel like a badass along the way. After all, he’s remembering this while fixing a television antenna on top of his boss’ house, a sunny day activity for a wistful man, and another reminder of just how fickle Hollywood can be. Timelines, however, are easier to set in stone.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is now in theaters. 

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