Quentin Tarantino says, ‘Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy’

Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino has commented on “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood’s” controversial portrayal of Bruce Lee.
(Alexander Zemlianichenko / Associated Press)

Quentin Tarantino is not apologizing for “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood’s” portrayal of Bruce Lee after receiving backlash from Lee’s family and friends.

During a news conference for the film in Moscow last week, Tarantino defended his controversial decision to paint the late action star, played by Mike Moh, as a narcissist. In an interview with The Times, Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, criticized the movie for turning her father into an “arrogant, egotistical punching bag.”

“Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” Tarantino said in a video posted by Radar magazine. “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. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. ... She absolutely said it.”


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Lee’s former training partner Dan Inosanto has also shared his thoughts on “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” denying that Lee would have ever boasted his superiority over Ali like Moh’s character does in the film.

The director also addressed criticism that the film makes Lee out to be weaker than he was. In one scene, Brad Pitt’s stuntman character, Cliff Booth, squares off with Lee, hurling him into the side of a car with force and ease.

“Brad would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could,” Tarantino 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 repeatedly cited Cliff’s rugged experience and backstory as justification for his ability to take Lee on, imagining more fantasy scenarios ending in a fight between the pair.

“[Cliff] has killed many men in World War II in hand-to-hand combat,” Tarantino said. “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, like martial arts tournaments are. Cliff is not even part of the sport that is like combat; he is a warrior. He is a combat person. ... If Cliff and Bruce were fighting in the jungles of the Philippines in a hand-to-hand combat fight, Cliff would kill him.”

Shannon Lee and her mother also lamented the film‘s “insultingly ‘Chinesey’ ” treatment of Lee — a claim Tarantino did not acknowledge at the press event in Russia.

“I feel like he turned his confidence into arrogance and his intelligence into mockery,” Shannon Lee told The Times. “I feel like he was picked on in the way that he was picked on in life by white Hollywood.”


Author Matthew Polly, who wrote the biography “Bruce Lee: A Life,” took to social media Monday to “fact check” Tarantino’s response to the uproar. In a series of tweets, Polly refuted Tarantino’s statements about Lee’s wife, Linda, and about the martial artist’s view of Ali.

“Linda was quoting a TV critic,” Polly wrote, referring to Tarantino’s claim that Lee’s wife corroborated Lee’s supposed arrogance in her own biography. “One critic wrote: ‘Those who watched him would bet on Lee to render Cassius Clay senseless if they were put in a room and told that anything goes.’ ”

“Bruce was obsessed with Ali, studying all Ali’s fights in detail,” he continued. “He frequently imagined fighting Ali ... BUT when asked directly by John Saxon if he could beat Ali, Bruce replied, ‘Look at my hand. That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.’ ”

Polly also addressed Tarantino’s explanation of Pitt’s character, challenging the director’s knowledge of World War II and writing, “... officers didn’t beat Nazis to death with their hands. Like all soldiers, they used their rifles first, pistols second, and knives when they ran out of bullets. WWII wasn’t ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.’ ”


The Lee controversy is not the first to come out of Tarantino’s comments at news press conferences for “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” He previously came under fire for his short response to a journalist at Cannes who questioned Margot Robbie’s lack of dialogue as Sharon Tate.