Quentin Tarantino’s newest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is almost perfect. It’s a bit long, a bit self-indulgent, even a bit violent. (For Tarantino, that’s really something.) But as a dreamlike odyssey of a Hollywood that never was, the movie a stunner from beginning to sentimental end.
There’s just one major problem: Bruce Lee.
More specifically, how Tarantino uses and clowns the martial arts legend for his story is an unflattering version of Bruce Lee that feels several steps backward in the midst of slow-moving progress. For generations of Asian-Americans who found solace in Lee’s significant brand of folk heroism, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t a fairy tale, it’s a nightmare.
Spoilers for Once Upon in Hollywood ahead.
In Tarantino’s film, set in late 1960s Hollywood, Bruce Lee is resurrected to life by Mike Moh, who is flawless in his performance of the famous (and famously arrogant) kung fu star. Lee appears in the film via flashback, in which stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) recalls an incident between himself and Lee on the set of the 1966 TV series, The Green Hornet.
In the film, Bruce Lee (Moh), a master of kung fu who innovated his own discipline, waxes poetic about famed boxer Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) while promoting himself as the better fighter. When a crew member asks Lee if he would fight Ali, he sidesteps the question with a non-answer until an annoyed Booth presses him. Lee responds, “I’d make him a cripple.”
Cue everyone, including us in the audience, going, “Woaaaaah.”
That’s when Cliff, positioned as the one to put Bruce in his place, challenges him in a one-on-one fight, best two out of three. Bruce’s mythic strength and speed, via his iconic skip sidestep kick, gives him an early advantage as he knocks Cliff on his ass in the first round. But Cliff soon overpowers Bruce in the second round, smashing him into the parked car of the director’s wife.
The fight ends before the deciding round (and Cliff gets fired from set), but it is heavily implied Cliff would have pummeled Bruce in the end.
The incident never happened, of course. Brad Pitt’s Cliff nor his best friend, a faded Western star named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), never existed. Tarantino’s film tells an alternate history in which two lovable assholes interfere with history, precluding the Manson Family murder of actress Sharon Tate.
Tarantino’s point for his Bruce Lee is pure exposition. It establishes for his audience what kind of a grade-A ass kicker Cliff Booth can be, which is crucial for the ending where — spoilers! — Cliff manhandles the Mansons with his bare hands while high off his mind. For plot reasons, it’s a necessary scene.
But the bigger picture is that Tarantino used a real-life figure who still matters to people, and embarrasses him because that’s just Tarantino’s brand of storytelling. That it’s an established A-list white actor like Brad Pitt who beats up Bruce just adds salt in the wound.
It is a monumental effort to describe Lee’s impact and legacy succinctly, so here’s an attempt: Between 1966 and 1973, Bruce Lee was a singular force who challenged racial stereotypes in his movies and changed popular culture. Even Tarantino was influenced by him; the yellow suit worn by Uma Thurman in Tarantino’s 2003 revenge romp Kill Bill: Volume 1 was first worn by Lee in his posthumously released 1978 film, The Game of Death.
In Bruce Lee’s time, when Asians elsewhere were vilified, emasculated, mocked, and many times not played by actual Asian actors (see: Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon, the list goes on), Bruce served as an imposing, charismatic entity the likes of which mainstream America hadn’t seen, not since silent film star Sessue Hayakawa.
As Daniel McDermon wrote for The New York Times in 2017:
“Lee’s indelible image was crafted as a rejection of those diminished roles. And the most essential aspect of that image is his body, stripped to the waist, corded and quivering with muscle. It is the centerpiece of dozens of fight scenes, which Lee choreographed himself, and is frequently revealed with slow, deliberate pageantry.
“Those bodily displays made him unique: an Asian-American star whose masculinity and physical prowess were front and center, not only in the films themselves, but also on promotional posters, billboards and merchandise around the world.”
While unsavory portrayals of Asian people nor yellow-face casting would cease after Lee, the actor’s sudden rise to fame and equally sudden death (just before the release of his only Hollywood film, Enter the Dragon) made audiences familiar, and comfortable, with Asians in heroic roles. And it’s because of Bruce Lee that Asian audiences found a figure to aspire to.
It’s because of Bruce that the likes of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen have enjoyed historic careers. It’s because of Bruce that the revolutionary sound of the Wu-Tang Clan exists. It’s because of Bruce that Marvel Studios has an Asian superhero to adapt in 2021.
Said hip-hop artist Kuya Geo in a 2018 interview, Bruce was “the only Asian person I ever saw in movie and TV who kicked ass.”
There is fair criticism that Bruce Lee introduced a new racial stereotype — that of the kung fu master — just as he challenged them. As Asian-American playwright Frank Chin lamented in the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen, “Bruce Lee is a stereotype. And we have to challenge the stereotype.”
But Bruce was, and remains, a complex larger-than-life figure no one can box in. Leave it to Mike Moh, who plays Lee in Tarantino’s film, to have a nuanced grasp of finding his place in Hollywood just as Bruce tried years ago.
“I want to be a martial arts action guy and it’s not because I want to fall into a stereotype,” Moh said in an episode of the Deadline podcast New Hollywood. “I just happen to love martial arts. I happen to be Asian. And yes, I do get upset when people just assume I know martial arts. But if there is something to be associated with Asians, I think it’s cool that it’s something so bad ass.”
Ultimately, Tarantino has a very amusing scene for his movie. Moh is note-perfect as an overconfident Bruce Lee, who hides his hesitation behind oversized sunglasses. Pitt, meanwhile, is just as entertaining as someone who is sick of this nonsense. For many of us in the audience, we find ourselves relating to both of them.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in theaters now.