"If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up," Tarantino said, "then he could beat Bruce Lee up."
The director made the comments following criticism from Lee's surviving family and friends, who were not consulted during the making of the film and disapproved of how the Asian-American icon was depicted.
Tarantino said the "Enter the Dragon" star was "kind of an arrogant guy" during a recent press tour in Moscow, Russia.
"The way he was talking ... I didn't just make a lot of that up," the "Kill Bill" filmmaker said. "I heard him say things like that, to that effect. Even the thing with people 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."
Then in regards to the fight scene between Pitt's Cliff Booth and Lee (played by Mike Moh) in the film, Tarantino said: "Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Okay, Brad would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could."
"If you ask me the question, 'Okay 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 then he could beat Bruce Lee up."
"The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret," Tarantino continued in an attempt to explain his position. "He has killed many many men in WWII in hand-to-hand combat. He is a killer. What Bruce Lee is talking about in the whole thing is what he admires is warriors. What he admires is combat, and boxing is a closer approximation of combat as a sport than martial arts tournaments are. Well Cliff is not even a part of the sport that is like combat, he is a warrior. He is a combat person."
"If Cliff were fighting Bruce Lee in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden," he concluded, "Bruce would kill him. But if Cliff and Bruce Lee were fighting in the jungles of the Philippines in a hand-to-hand combat fight, Cliff would kill him."
The controversy over the icon's depiction in the film began when Bruce Lee's daughter, Shannon, told The Wrap she found Tarantino's portrayal of her father "disheartening."
At one point in the film Pitt's stuntman character, Cliff Booth, and Bruce Lee challenge each other to an informal fight -- best two-out-of-three -- while on the set of "The Green Hornet" TV show. Although Lee easily wins the first round, Booth throws Lee into a car in the second. The duo is interrupted before they go at a third round.
"He comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air," Shannon said of the scene. "And not someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others."
She added, "Here, he's the one with all the puffery and he's the one challenging Brad Pitt. Which is not how he was."
Shannon admitted she didn't have a problem with Moh playing her father, however, said it seemed he "was directed to be a caricature."
Although Shannon said she understands Tarantino's reasoning for her father's portrayal, it didn't make it any easier for her to watch, especially due to what her father had to go through as an Asian-American actor in the 1960s.
"I can understand all the reasoning behind what is portrayed in the movie," she said. "I understand that the two characters are antiheroes and this is sort of like a rage fantasy of what would happen...and they're portraying a period of time that clearly had a lot of racism and exclusion."
"I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee," she continued. "But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive."
Shannon added, "It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father."
This isn't the first time Lee's daughter has spoken out against "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," which is Tarantino's ninth film. Shannon criticized the director before the film was even released, saying she was angered she wasn't contacted about Lee's character in the film.
Unlike Shannon, Tarantino reportedly got the okay from Sharon Tate's sister when it came to the late actress' character, portrayed by Margot Robbie.
"With Tarantino's film, to not have been included in any kind of way, when I know that he reached out to other people but did not reach out to me, there's a level of annoyance," Shannon told Deadline in June. "There's part of me that says this is not worth my time and my energy. Let's just see how the universe deals with this one."
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is in theaters now.
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