What Bruce Lee’s Biographer Thinks of That ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Brad Pitt Fight Scene

Matthew Polly’s “Bruce Lee: A Life” is the definitive story of Lee, including what he was doing around the time of the Manson murders

A lot of people got mad this week about a brief fight between Bruce Lee and Brad Pitt’s character in the new teaser trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming “Once a Time in Hollywood.”

But Matthew Polly, the author of “Bruce Lee: A Life,” isn’t ready to fight anyone for Bruce Lee’s honor. Not yet.

“I find the ‘controversy’ fun,” he told TheWrap. “It’s a trailer. We have no idea what actually will happen between ‘Bruce’ and Brad Pitt or if they are even fighting for real or just acting a scene.”

The criticisms of the trailer footage ranged from the logistical (“So, we’re supposed to believe that Brad Pitt would stand a chance against Bruce Lee in a fight now?”) to the racial (“a white male power fantasy”). People took issue with Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, disrespecting Lee (Mike Moh.)

The teaser features a scene that seems to take place on the set of “The Green Hornet,” a TV show on which Lee played Kato from 1966-67.

Lee issues a gentle warning to Pitt: “My hands are registered as lethal weapons. We get into a fight, I accidentally kill you, I go to jail.”

Pitt is unimpressed. “Anybody accidentally kills anybody in a fight they go to jail,” he says. “It’s called manslaughter.”

Violence ensues. Polly found a lot to like.

“It’s a pretty good representation of the fighting style of Lee’s character Kato on ‘The Green Hornet,’” he said. “Lee himself didn’t fight like Kato in real life — he invented a new style for the series. Tarantino is riffing on the Kato character.”
After closer study of the teaser, Polly added: “The jump side kick at the end to Pitt’s chest is a pure Kato move. The initial series of punches that ‘Bruce’ throws and Pitt blocks, ending with Pitt trapping ‘Bruce’s’ arm is more like traditional Hong Kong kung-fu movie choreography, but Bruce is wearing the black gloves from Kato. So more or less, it’s Kato — a homage rather than a pure imitation.”
And, in case you were wondering: “There’s no record of Lee ever saying that his hands were registered as lethal weapons, and I doubt he ever did. But Lee was a big talker and liked to brag, so Tarantino is not too far off base riffing on Lee’s tough guy legend. Plus, it’s a great setup for Pitt’s punchline.”
Polly, a martial arts master himself, was impressed not just with Moh’s fighting style, but also his acting. “Probably the best part of the Mike Moh’s version of Lee is the accent. He has the intonations almost the same,” he said.
As we’ve written before, there’s a lot we can pull from the teaser. The “Green Hornet” scene is one of several indications that the film won’t take place close to the date of the Charles Manson slayings, but will rather cover an entire era. The Lee scene seems to take place at least two years before the killings.
As Polly recounts in his book, Lee played a strange and nearly forgotten role in the investigation of the Manson murders. At one point, slain actress Sharon Tate’s widower, Roman Polanski, considered Lee a suspect in the killings.
You can hear Polly tell that story — and many others — on the “Shoot This Now” podcast, available on Apple and right here: