Once upon a time in Hollywood: Bruce Lee beaten

Could Bruce Lee be beaten by Brad Pitt’s character (Cliff Booth)?

When I went to watch “Once upon a time in Hollywood”, I was already aware of the controversy about the “sketched” fight between Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) and Cliff Booth (an old stuntman, played by Brad Pitt) but I never expected to find what I saw…

Let’s go in order. I have seen:

  • A poor story – Especially in the first part, the movie is slow, full of dead times and “with little to communicate” (as a friend of mine said after the projection); if it hadn’t been for the final part, it wouldn’t even have seemed a Tarantino’s movie (but this is not of great interest from the point of view of martial arts)
  • A poor combat choreography – The choreography of the “offending” fight was decidedly horrendous and full of inaccuracies
  • Poor respect – What is worse, however, is the way in which Bruce Lee has been presented (which, in my opinion, is incredibly offensive, even before that for the character itself, also and above all for the cliché of the stupid-little-chinese)

A note by Master Kongling – Apart from the final scene, I didn’t like the movie but even though I worked on amatorial film making (an anime) in the past, I do not consider myself an expert, so I’m not going to express myself too much on the aspects not related to the Bruce Lee character.

Low-level fight choreography

A few things to reflect on…

Cliff Booth fighting style:

  • Cliff Booth uses the ultramodern Jack Reacher’s style of combat called Defense Lab (something absolutely unthinkable for an American of that period)
  • The really comical thing is that Defense Lab (born for self-defense and widely employed in the hollywodian choreographies, see Batman, etc.) has its origins in Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do (the founder, Andy Norman, is in fact a student of Bob Breen)
  • The paradox is therefore that Mike Moh fights clumsily mimicking Bruce Lee’s movies performances, while Brad Pitt adopts a system based on the teachings of his own adversary

Another small “strangeness” is the fact that when Bruce is thrown by Cliff against the door of a car behind, it shrivels like it was made of sheet metal; in that period the cars were very solid (but in comparison to the rest, this is absolutely a minor detail).

The cliché (another) of Bruce Lee’s flying kick:

  • According to Bruce Lee’s background (Wing Chun before and his Jeet Kune Do after), the kick that Mike Moh hurls against Brad Pitt is a type of blow that he never ever would have used in a similar fight (particularly that way, so predictable and worst of all for 2 consecutive times)
  • That kick, if thrown correctly is one of the most devastating legs techniques; the “you-didn’t-do-anything-to-me-try-again” reaction of Brad Pitt’s character is a little “naive” (to be gentle); again, that kick could be devastating
  • In purely Kung Fu terms, the execution of that kick (even if naturally simulated) is wrong but this is not a Mike Moh’s fault (he is not a Kung Fu practitioner, he is a Taekwondo instructor and he has done correctly what he knows); in its most effective version, that technique uses the power of the entire body, not only the one of the rush, or the jump, or the legs (it is an advanced level technique that requires a set of specific skills, we will see it)

Master Kongling – I respect Mike Moh: he is a great martial artist and he has legitimately taken a big chance for his career of actor. What we see on Once upon a time in Hollywood is not his fault: I imagine his excitement at having been chosen for such an important role and at the same time, the disappointed in reading the script.

The characterization of Bruce Lee

The superficiality of the fight choreography passes neatly into the background if compared to how Bruce Lee is presented:

  • “Hi, I am the small Chinese guy that does not speak well in English” – Between giggles and “smart” camera shots, he is transposed (at the limit of trespassing in racism) with the classical 60s vision of the little stupid Chinese (using the Cliff Booth’s words “a little man with a big mouth and a big chip”)
  • Did he really had an arrogant attitude? – Probably yes but there is a wide difference between being sure of one’s abilities and appearing a frustrated vain; Bruce Lee knew how much he was worth and he did not pretend humility but in no case he can be presented as a fool who could not manage or evaluate even so easy situations; before than an actor and a martial arts expert, he was a brilliant person
  • Bruce Lee vs Muhammad Ali – Bruce Lee has never said he could have beaten Muhammad Ali (he always respected him); said this, a boxer is a boxer and uses punches only, in a normal boxing match Ali would win certainly, in a balanced ruled MMA type fight probably not (against Inoki, Ali risked having his legs amputated due to thrombosis), in a street fight surely not (in the street there are no rules, improvised weapons, grappling, etc. and that was the field of excellence of Jeet Kune Do)

Cliff Booth vs Bruce Lee: the truth

Cliff Booth could have beaten Bruce Lee?

No. In the movie even if Tarantino says that Bruce Lee has not been beaten, he has. The fact is that in that period, the oriental martial arts were not known / diffused as today (especially the Chinese ones) and even the best occidental stuntman of the world (that is not a fighter nor a martial artist) could have handled Bruce Lee’s combat flow (especially a 50 years old “drunkard”).

Was Quentin Tarantino entitled to create a fictional character (which is Cliff Booth) stronger than Bruce Lee?

Certainly yes, whoever creates a story has absolute power over the world he creates but: he could have done it better, in a more credible (and respectful) way.

Who was the real Bruce Lee?

Was Bruce Lee an epic universal champion, able to beat every fighter of the world? Was he an arrogant idiot unable to even manage a second-rate opponent?

No. Neither option. He was an extraordinary man with many merits and just as many defects but if today he is to all intents and purposes, the most respected and recognized martial artist in the world (from practitioners of different martial arts, nations, etc.), some reason there will be (and it is certainly not to be searched for the films he has made).

Final notes

I would like to point out that:

  • Probably Bruce Lee was inserted in the film in a rather forced way, just to go to raise the fortunes of a movie that, otherwise, risked being scarce
  • I like Di Caprio and I love Brad Pitt (their acting was excellent) and I love Quentin Tarantino (director of some of the most brilliant movies I’ve ever seen) but this time, this has truly been a false step
  • To be fair, it is important to say that (as it is clear to everyone) in the movies, it is not only the Americans who paint the Chinese negatively but also vice-versa (it is a kind of “cold war of national prestige” that contends for the public’s esteem)
  • In no movie, Bruce Lee’s fans (and I’m not exactly one of them) fully accept the actor’s performances of those who play his role; this happens because he is a legend (both on the set, both in martial arts terms) and no one sees someone worthy of him

A note by Master Kongling – Why this article? What does it have to do with 6 Dragons Kung Fu? Almost nothing, only the fact that it is never a good idea to take for granted what movies (Chinese, American, etc.) say about martial arts. It is always and in every case a fiction, an exaggeration, an exasperation and sometimes (as in this case) a superficial if not tendentious narration. If you want to understand if a fighting style, a technique or a martial setting works, there is only one thing you can do: try it (read Is it legit?).

In-depth articles


Reply in the comments and share your experience:

  • Have you seen the movie? What is your opinion?

Author: Master Kongling

Founder of 6 Dragons Kung Fu.

How to master 6 Dragons Kung Fu?

Are you searching for:

  • Daily training exercises?
  • Synthetic theory and concepts?
  • A step by step path from white to black belt?
  • A path (clear, consequential and gradual) designed to build real martial skills?
  • A direct contact with Master Kongling?

Go to our Patreon page and choose a training plan: starting from the Practitioner level, you will gain access to all this and much more.

Inside each Premium Lesson, you will receive the same teaching (practices, tips, concepts, small secrets and corrections) reserved to the live students of Master Kongling.

Important - Once a certain number of registrations are reached, no other participants can be accepted. For more information write to: [email protected].

Support us (1€ / month):