In Quentin Tarantino’s Tinseltown fantasia “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Bruce Lee faces off with Brad Pitt’s fictional stuntman Cliff Booth in a scene that some say makes fun of the martial arts icon.
In the cameo, Bruce Lee, played by actor Mike Moh, challenges Booth to spar outside the set of Lee’s TV series “The Green Hornet.” Lee is introduced holding court for everyone who will listen, bragging that he could beat boxing champ Cassius Clay, a.k.a. Muhammad Ali, in a fight: “My hands are registered as lethal weapons.”
But after talking a big game — and playing up his signature mannerisms and outsize confidence, knocking Cliff down in the first round — it’s Lee who gets unceremoniously thrown into the side of a parked car by the stuntman before others intervene.
The scene has offended fans of Lee, and it has offended his family. Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, called the depiction “disrespectful” and “a mockery” of her late father’s legacy.
“I understand this is a Tarantino film, that the movie characters are ‘antiheroes’ and this has his characteristic style and is another of his rage fantasies,” said Lee after seeing the film Sunday. “While I understand that the mechanism in the story is to make Brad Pitt’s character out to be such a badass that he can beat up Bruce Lee, the script treatment of my father as this arrogant, egotistical punching bag was really disheartening — and, I feel, unnecessary.
“[Tarantino] seems to have gone out of the way to make fun of my father and to portray him as kind of a buffoon.”
“[Tarantino] seems to have gone out of the way to make fun of my father and to portray him as kind of a buffoon,” added Lee, who is chief executive of the Bruce Lee Family Co. and heads her father’s namesake charity. “I feel like he turned his confidence into arrogance and his intelligence into mockery. I feel like he was picked on in the way that he was picked on in life by white Hollywood.
“I’ve met Mike and I know that he loves my father and he’s a working actor, and I really hold no negativity toward him whatsoever. Again, I feel like the portrayal is a caricature — not a character, but a caricature. But I think he was probably directed that way.”
In a follow-up email, Lee said that her mother, Linda Lee Cadwell, found the portrayal to be “just awful.”
According to Shannon Lee, her mother told her: “I thought the character was like a caricature of himself and made him look stupid, silly and made to be insultingly ‘Chinesey.’ It strayed so far from the truth of who he was and of any actual encounter he had. … It was terrible to watch.”
In a film about myth-making whose ambiguities have sparked heated debate (including, but not limited to: its arm’s-length treatment of actress Sharon Tate, the depiction of violence toward women, why the film mostly steers clear of Charles Manson and what, exactly, it all even means), Lee’s portrayal is a complicated one to unpack. Moh describes his performance as homage to the icon he admires.
During his press tour, Tarantino said the scene serves a more direct purpose: t o make a case for Cliff’s own killer capabilities. It’s an explanation foreshadowed by Al Pacino’s character in the film, who explains to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton how he’s being used in villain-of-the-week parts to put over the next generation of TV stars. Tarantino could not be reached for comment on this story.
To Jeff Yang, author of the Chinese cinema history book “Once Upon a Time in China” and cohost of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” any use of Lee’s memory warrants deeper inspection. “The biggest question I have here is: where does the line get drawn between homage and exploitation?” he said, noting that Lee’s legacy is intertwined with a flood of copycat movies that followed his death as imitators lept to cash in on his image. “It is ironic that Quentin, who claims to be a fan, would engage in a very similar process.”
Like Tate — whose August 9, 1969, murder by the Manson “family” alongside hairstylist Jay Sebring, screenwriter Voytek Frykowski, heiress Abigail Folger and 18-year-old Steven Parent serves as the looming narrative threat of the film — Lee was a real person chasing a Hollywood dream whose life was cut short on the brink of stardom. His sudden death in 1973 at age 32 preceded the release of the breakout film “Enter the Dragon” that would finally make him a superstar in the United States.
Tarantino, the cineaste who put “Kill Bill’s” Uma Thurman as the Bride in Lee’s iconic yellow “Game of Death” jumpsuit, wrote Lee and Tate as supporting characters in a story anchored by two fictional white men; he even shows them together, in a quick flashback to Lee training Tate for her fight scene with Asian American actor Nancy Kwan for “The Wrecking Crew,” and later, training Sebring, who discovered Lee in real life. But anecdotally speaking, during Bruce Lee’s showdown with Cliff Booth, audiences seem to either laugh along or cringe in their seats.
So what are we to make of the scene?
“I think the movie is about the burden that certain idols have had to bear,” said veteran film critic Walter Chaw, who sees the scene as one in which Lee doesn’t lose, even if he’s knocked down a peg. “Bruce Lee has become posterized or memed to this point where he’s this wise Eastern philosopher who was also indestructible. The amount of rage around the idea that Bruce Lee could even be beaten in battle is really disturbing to me, because it dehumanizes him.”
At the time of his brief 1966-67 run on “Green Hornet” as Kato, sidekick to the titular superhero, Lee might have felt a kinship to Dalton, a TV star with an uncertain future and something to prove — particularly for Lee as a rare Asian American star scrapping to claim space for himself in white-dominated Hollywood. Portraying Lee as anything less than his mythical legend in that scene, Chaw argues, adds dimension to how we think of him.
Mike Moh stars as Bruce Lee on set of the movie “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.”
(Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures)
“I think what Tarantino’s trying to do in the film is to demystify the myth a little bit,” said Chaw, senior film critic at Film Freak Central. “Bruce Lee is one of those guys that’s become untouchable. So when Tarantino touches him, he humanizes him. And I think people are rejecting right now the idea that you can humanize Bruce Lee, and I think that’s interesting.”
Whether the film succeeds in clearly seeding that reading is up for debate. Like many details in the film (Cliff’s boat flashback; his and Rick’s punchline moments of casual racism; the film’s glaring-if-you-notice-it lack of people of color in Tarantino’s heady, dreamy 1960s Los Angeles), the meaning of those storytelling choices are left to the viewer to interpret.
How audiences are interpreting it is noteworthy. In the opening weekend showing that scholar and “Reel Inequality” author Nancy Wang Yuen attended, a cringe-inducing sound followed that scene: the sound of other moviegoers laughing at Bruce Lee, an experience Shannon Lee also had watching the film with a theater of strangers. “It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at him,” Lee said.
“There’s nothing else to call him but the butt of the joke, because everything that makes him powerful is the very thing that makes him laughable in the film,” said Yuen, who found the depiction and her theater’s reaction to it insulting. “His kung fu becomes a joke, and his philosophizing becomes a fortune cookie, and the sounds that he makes as he does kung fu are literally made fun of by Cliff. They made his arrogance look like he was a fraud.”
Brad Pitt stars in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
(Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures)
“It’s not cool to use people of color to make [Cliff] a more well-rounded, more complex character, especially when there is nothing to counter those stereotypes,” said Yuen, pointing out that the Lee portrayal is the most prominent speaking role of color in the film. In its version of 1969 L.A., African Americans are also invisible and a few Latinx characters — arguably authentic to how 1960s Hollywood treated them, as Erick Galindo writes in L.A. Taco — are largely nameless and silent.
The scrutiny is warranted given Lee’s prominence as one of the most iconic Asian American artists of all time. The historical context makes race in the film an aspect worthy of critical engagement, like many of the other choices fans and critics are poring over with obsessive attention. Lee is so prominently featured in Sony’s marketing campaign that audiences might be shocked to learn his screen time in the two-hour-and-45-minute film amounts to a single scene and two quick and wordless flashbacks.
Arriving amid a groundbreaking time for Asian American representation, with films like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Searching,” “Always Be My Maybe,” “Late Night” and “The Farewell” bringing unprecedented inclusion to the big screen, and Marvel’s first Asian superhero movie, “Shang Chi,” on the horizon, “Once Upon a Time” feels sorely retrograde, says Yang. “It’s this uncomfortable reminder that we’re the only people who saw him, and clearly other people saw him differently. For Asian Americans, Bruce Lee wasn’t just exciting and cool. He was somebody who very deeply moved us, because he was us.”
The reaction many Bruce Lee fans are having to the portrayal stems from the place Lee holds in the community and what his visibility did to counteract the historic emasculation of the Asian male, says Angry Asian Man writer Phil Yu.
“Bruce Lee was a guy who was kind of superhuman in a lot of ways. He tested the limits of physicality and tried to expand the boundaries of what people were capable of — himself the most,” said Yu, who also cohosts “They Call Us Bruce,” citing Lee’s teachings. “The thing about that is, we don’t see a lot of Asian men portrayed that way or given the platform to even behave that way. For a guy to be like that, especially in that era, was an affront to what a lot of people thought Asians and Asian men could be.”
“He could come off as overconfident, cocky and even arrogant, but he was the guy who could back that up,” he added. Yu hasn’t yet seen the film, but he’s seen plenty of artists attempt to depict Lee onscreen, with varying results. “People always want to insert Bruce Lee-isms into things, but no one ever wants to actually explore Bruce Lee.”
Are there details embedded within the text of the film, as specific and referential as Dalton’s faux Spaghetti Western posters, that might offer deeper context to Lee’s brief appearance in “Once Upon a Time”? The flashback fight scene, for example, is framed as Cliff’s memory; remembering Bruce Lee as a blowhard chump he beat up might be an easier explanation for his stalled career than the whispered accusations of domestic violence that trail him.
The scene opens on the Fox lot where “Green Hornet” was filmed, panning down from a billboard for the Pearl Harbor war drama “Tora! Tora! Tora!” — a film that wouldn’t be released until 1970, three years after “Green Hornet” was canceled. Lee’s later-era hairstyle too is anachronistic, another indicator that Cliff’s memory, or even the film’s memory, is subject to hazy misremembering.
Tarantino’s end credits’ citation of another piece of period marketing, a 1960s “Batman” radio promotion featuring Adam West and Burt Ward, offer another stumper of an Easter Egg. Could that be a throwback to the time Lee reportedly refused to lose in a fight against Ward’s Robin in a 1967 crossover episode — a scene that, legend has it, was then rewritten to end in a draw?
For film critic Claudia Puig, who was reminded of her own childhood memories of 1969 Los Angeles while watching “Once Upon a Time,” the world Tarantino presents onscreen is best read with a grain of salt. “I don’t think [Tarantino] was going for depth and dimensionality in terms of the characters but a pastiche of this era,” she said. “I call it faux nostalgia, because there was all this other stuff going on. This was a really narrow view of that era.”
And maybe that’s the point, for better or worse. Puig pointed to the streaks of casual racism in both Cliff and Rick’s characters that initially made her wince. “I thought about the ‘beaner’ line too,” she said. “[Rick] is congratulated for coming up with that. I thought, ‘Did you really need that?’ But maybe that is telling you a lot about how people thought.”
“People have said to me, ‘But Quentin Tarantino is such a huge Bruce Lee fan.’ I actually don’t think he is.”
A generous reading of Tarantino’s intention grants the filmmaker a measure of grace; perhaps he means for the viewer to feel both the temptation and the tragic impossibility of such fairy-tale fantasizing — that even in an alternate scenario in which Sharon Tate lives, men like Rick and Cliff are the antiheroes we’re stuck with.
Even so, when it comes to her father, Shannon Lee says it’s disappointing to her that Tarantino couldn’t find another way to make his point other than create a depiction that was far from the man, martial artist and philosopher he really was.
“People have said to me, ‘But Quentin Tarantino is such a huge Bruce Lee fan.’ I actually don’t think he is,” said Lee, who also cohosts a podcast dedicated to her father’s teachings. “I’ve always suspected that he’s not. What I think he’s a fan of is things that kick ass in a cool way. I think he is a fan of my father’s style, of the way that he was in his films. I’m not sure he really knows much about him as a human being or his philosophy.”
“I think that there was a way to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish differently that didn’t lampoon at least my father, if not everyone. It was just disheartening,” she said. “I would just hope that people would want to engage with the real Bruce Lee and not what was portrayed there.”