Why would Quentin Tarantino make Bruce Lee such a joke?

While Quentin Tarantino’s latest (and perhaps penultimate) film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is off to a critically and commercially successful opening weekend by all accounts, there is one character of note which many classic action movie fans may take issue.

We’re talking, of course, of Bruce Lee – who as a character is featured in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in a couple of scenes that, well… aren’t that flattering for the martial arts legend.

So, what’s Tarantino’s beef with Bruce? It’s almost as if the writer/director went out of his way to make Lee into a gross mis-charaterization of himself. Here are some brief thoughts on what happened, and what might be going on…

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Tarantino Doesn’t Respect Bruce Lee

At the surface level, this must appear to be what’s going on. And for a director who has cited Bruce Lee as an influence for some of his films in the past – most notably Kill Bill Vol 1, and to a lesser extend Kill Bill Vol 2 – it’s just all kinds of odd that we get this character attack.

Tarantino has built a reputation and a career on “homaging” and honoring other films and filmmakers. And while some might say “stealing” instead of coming up with stylings of his own, in just about every instance his “homages” are very sincere and respectful of his source materials.

Yet, the Bruce Lee scene where Lee boasts braggadocious about his skills and exploits in the face of Brad Pitt’s stunt professional character Cliff Booth, is exactly the opposite. Actor Mike Moh, who portrays Lee around the late 1960s (just a few years before Lee tragically passed away in 1973), goes about as over the top as any character in the Tarantino-verse ever has.

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Bruce Lee is a Fantasy by Cliff Booth

UPDATE: Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, has responded to Lee’s portrayal in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood via The Wrap.

“I can understand all the reasoning behind what is portrayed in the movie. I understand that the two characters are antiheroes and this is sort of like a rage fantasy of what would happen… and they’re portraying a period of time that clearly had a lot of racism and exclusion.”

“I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee. But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.”

“He comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air. And not someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others.”

The most common counter argument so far found online is that Bruce Lee’s portrayal isn’t a “real” scene in the movie, but rather a fantasy from the imagination of Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth. The scene does come in the movie as Cliff is fantasizing – although it just as easily appears to simply be a flashback – about working on set with Lee as a stunt double to Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie star character.

So the theory would be that Cliff is the one who has exaggerated Lee’s exploits to be annoying and a fraud as he is easily defeated in a fight by Cliff. But still, this doesn’t exactly make the sequence forgivable for Lee fans or family.

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No Blessing from the Lee Family

Bruce Lee is lovingly remembered as one of the greatest figures in martial arts action cinema of all time. From an ultimate action movie legacy that includes Enter the Dragon, Fist of Fury, The Game of Death as well as introducing the world to Chuck Norris and notably giving unlicensed post-death training a young Kurt McKinney to defeat an evil Russian Jean-Claude Van Damme in No Retreat No Surrender, it’s just odd that Tarantino – for whatever reason – would go out of his way to indignify the man like this.

Sure, you could argue that it helps the story in some form. But Tarantino is no newcomer to the world of cinema criticism and discussion. He’d have to be very aware of what the response to Lee’s portrayal would bring. And without the blessing of the Lee family and estate, it’s almost like he just didn’t care.

We’ll have to see how history eventually settles on this, as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is still fresh in theaters and should enjoy a pretty solid run into the 2020 Oscars. But as far as action movie legacies go, this will undoubtedly slightly tarnish Tarantino’s, as well as unnecessarily throw shade at Bruce Lee’s – who isn’t even around to defend his own.


What do you think about this Bruce Lee portrayal by Quentin Tarantino? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page!

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