Bruce Lee was 'kind of arrogant', says Quentin Tarantino after 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' criticism

Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth fights Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh, in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’.
PHOTO: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Quentin Tarantino has finally waded into the row surrounding his depiction of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Fans of the martial arts icon are upset over the outcome of a fight between actor Mike Moh's Lee and Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt.

Booth challenges Lee to a best of two-out-of-three rounds fight on the set of 1960s ABC television hit, The Green Hornet, which helped Lee get a foot in the door in Hollywood.

"Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could," Tarantino said at the film's Moscow press conference last week.

Lee easily knocks Booth down with a flying kick in the first "round" in front of a bunch of watching extras and stunt men. Booth dodges the same move in the second "round", catching Lee and throwing him on the on-set director's wife's car door.

There is no winner of the final round, but Booth easily handles Lee's jeet kune do moves, with the film heavily implying he would have won the fight were it not broken up by the director's wife.

"If you ask me the question, 'Who would win in a fight, Bruce Lee or Dracula?' It's the same question. It's a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he's a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up," Tarantino said.

"The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret. He has killed many men in World War II in hand-to-hand combat.

"What Bruce Lee is talking about in the whole thing is that he admires warriors. He admires combat, and boxing is a closer approximation of combat as a sport. Cliff is not part of the sport that is like combat, he is a warrior. He is a combat person."

Brad Pitt attends a red carpet event for Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ in Mexico City on August 12. PHOTO: AFP

Lee's depiction in the film has also divided opinion in the mixed martial arts community. On an episode of his hugely popular YouTube podcast last week, UFC commentator Joe Rogan said Tarantino made Lee look like "a dummy". His guest, the former UFC fighter Brendan Schaub, praised the scene for being humorous and unpredictable, while also pointing out Lee did not have an extensive record of professional fights, and questioning whether he could beat a much larger, skilled fighter.

Tarantino suggested Lee would still beat Booth in a professional fight, though. "If Cliff were fighting Bruce Lee in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden, Bruce would kill him," he said.

"But if Cliff and Bruce were fighting in the jungles of the Philippines in a hand-to-hand combat fight, Cliff would kill him."

The Hong Kong legend's daughter, Shannon Lee, has led criticism of the film over the past few weeks, saying her father's legacy was "flushed down the toilet" by Tarantino, who she said depicted him as "an arrogant a******".

Bruce Lee's former training partner and protege Dan Inosanto, also defended his Game of Death co-star. The fight with Booth is prompted by Lee's claims he would make Muhammad Ali "a cripple" if they ever fought.

Inosanto said Lee "worshipped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on" and would never have said anything derogatory about the boxing legend. Tarantino begged to differ.

Quentin Tarantino poses during a photo call ahead of the Russian Premiere of his latest film ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ in Moscow on August 7. PHOTO: AFP

"Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy," Tarantino said. "The way he was talking, I didn't just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that to that effect.

"If people are saying, 'Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali', well, yeah he did. All right? Not only did he say that but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.