Played by Mike Moh, the Lee in Sony’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is cocky (to say the least) and claims he could have “crippled” Muhammad Ali (referred to as Cassius Clay).
Brad Pitt’s character, a stuntman and former war hero named Cliff Booth, laughs in Lee’s face over the comment and his behavior, then the two get into a “friendly” contest of who can knock the other down three times without hitting the face.
Friends and family of the actual Lee (who died in 1973 at the age of 32) complimented Moh on his overall performance, but said the person they knew did not act like that and, what’s more, never would have lost a fight to Brad Pitt.
Tarantino, doing press for the film in Russia, disagreed, saying Lee was actually “kind of an arrogant guy.”
“The way he was talking, I didn’t just make a lot of that up,” Tarantino said in the video below. “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. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read.… She absolutely said it.”
Tarantino also defended the fight between Moh’s Lee and Pitt’s Booth, which is stopped before either wins the best of three.
“Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could,” the Oscar winner said. “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 then offered a deeper look into Pitt’s character, who is referred to in the film as a “war hero” but nothing more is stated.
“The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret,” Tarantino said. “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.”
Continued Tarantino, “If Cliff were fighting Bruce Lee in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden, Bruce would kill him. But if Cliff and Bruce were fighting in the jungles of the Philippines in a hand-to-hand combat fight, Cliff would kill him.”