It’s been almost two years since Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” opened in theaters and ignited a global controversy around his depiction of Bruce Lee. Bruce’s daughter, Shannon Lee, condemned Tarantino for his “irresponsible” portrayal of the martial arts icon and said the film created lasting negative views about her father. The scene, in which actor Mike Moh stars as Bruce Lee, is reportedly the reason China refused to release “Hollywood” in theaters unless it was removed. Tarantino refused. The director also defended his portrayal, saying Lee was “an arrogant guy” in real life.
The Bruce Lee discussion as it relates to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” resurfaced this week during Tarantino’s appearance on “The Joe Rogan Experience” to promote the just-released “Hollywood” novelization. While the filmmaker can sympathize with Shannon Lee for being upset with the “Hollywood” version of Bruce Lee, Tarantino stands defiant against anyone else who has a problem.
“Where I am coming from is I can understand his daughter having a problem with it. It’s her fucking father. I get that,” Tarantino said. “But anybody else, oh suck a dick!”
Tarantino said it makes sense Bruce Lee lost his fight against Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as the latter tricked him. “Cliff’s method is to give the guy the first fall,” the director said. “He gives Bruce no resistance whatsoever and Bruce knocks Cliff on his ass. There’s four different ways Bruce could’ve come at him the second time and Cliff would’ve had little defense, but most of the time if a guy has a particular move and it looks like the other dude is a big mouth who can’t defend himself, they do the first move again a second time. But now Cliff knows what it is! He prepares for it and throws [Bruce’s] ass into the car. He just tricked him. Bruce realizes he got tricked.”
Similar to his initial defense of the scene, Tarantino doubled down on his point that Bruce lost to Cliff in a hand-to-hand combat fight. This style of fighting is Cliff’s speciality. As Tarantino explained, “If Cliff fought Bruce Lee at a Madison Square Garden martial arts tournament, he would not stand a chance. But as a killer who has killed men before in a jungle, he would kill Bruce Lee. He’d fucking kill him! Bruce Lee is not a killer. He’s actually facing a guy who could kill him, it’s a different story. It’s in the book, when Bruce realizes Cliff is taking a military combat stance, he realizes Cliff is a killer.”
As Tarantino writes in the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” novel: “Bruce didn’t really want to hurt Cliff. He just wanted to show him up. But Cliff wanted to hurt Bruce. If by slamming him into that car he had fucked up Bruce’s back and neck for the rest of his life, Cliff would have been fine with that.”
Tarantino and Rogan’s discussion touched upon Bruce Lee’s relationship with real-life Hollywood stuntman Gene Labelle. “The stuntmen hated Bruce on ‘Green Hornet,'” the director said. “It’s in Matthew Polly’s book [‘Bruce Lee: A Life’] and it’s always been known. That’s why Gene Labelle was brought in, to teach Bruce respect for American stuntmen.”
“Bruce had no respect for American stuntmen, he was always hitting them with his feet,” Tarantino continued. “It’s called tagging when you hit a stuntman for real. He was always tagging them with his feet and his fist and it got to the point where they would refuse to work with Bruce. He had nothing but disrespect for American stuntmen. It was probably just like, ‘Oh they’re just not good enough. They are pussies. I want to make it look real!’ But stuntmen don’t like that. That’s unprofessional.”
Tarantino goes as far as drawing a line between Bruce Lee and Charles Manson in the “Hollywood” novel, noting that Lee viewed Hollywood talent like Steve McQueen just as Manson viewed the musicians he thought could help him break into Hollywood. Tarantino writes, “Like Charles Manson, this spiritual sifu stuff was just a side gig. The way Charles Manson wanted to be a rock star, Bruce Lee wanted to be a movie star. James Coburn and Sterling Silliphant were his Dennis Wilson. Steve McQueen and Roman Polanski were his Terry Melcher.”
The “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” novel is now available for purchase. Head over to “The Joe Rogan Experience” Spotify page to listen to Tarantino’s full interview.
Additional reporting by Christian Blauvelt.