While growing up, I had many heroes and I’ve discussed some of them in these columns. One I haven’t mentioned is Bruce Lee, better known to young-me as Kato on the 1966-67 TV series The Green Hornet and then in some martial arts motion pictures. I took Bruce Lee for granted as one of the coolest human beings ever and never thought of him as Asian or a minority or anything of the kind. He was just 100% Ohmygod Badass. Now through adult eyes I can see what he accomplished on television way back then in a United States ruled by and for white people. We had seen Asians play sidekicks and serve as comic relief, but a young Asian male as the soft-spoken and deadly enforcer of an otherwise unremarkable superhero the likes of Britt Reid/The Green Hornet; well, this was new.
Not long ago I watched a particular episode of The Green Hornet and Lee’s fight scenes struck me dumb. I wish I could find that sequence to show you but here’s something similar—it’s kinda dark but in several seconds you get the idea. What Lee brought wasn’t the same old quality of stuntmen for Adam West and Burt Ward throwing air punches with meat-slammer sound effects; Lee brought something else—something muscular and pulverizing that defied gravity.
After his all-too-brief turn as Kato, Lee went on to carve a successful career in Asian pictures that hold up well today, including The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, and then the Warner Bros. release Enter the Dragon, which I made my dad take me to see twice in first run.
Bruce Lee’s death from a freak allergic reaction to a painkiller made for another of those traumatic childhood events for me—Pete Duel had been taken at the turn of 1972, Roberto Clemente at the turn of 1973, and then Bruce Lee that July. Three of my heroes gone in 18 months, like, literally, my top three, at ages 31, 38, and 32.
All of which is to say you won’t find anybody who respects the achievements or memory of Bruce Lee more than I do, which is why I love the depiction of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I more than love it. I love-love it. I could watch it on a loop for a week, or a month. As far as I’m concerned Tarantino brought Bruce Lee back to life just for me, exactly the Bruce Lee I needed in childhood and exactly as I would have wanted him to be. This Bruce Lee is funny and arrogant, as full of himself as I could wish him to be in his young prime during the Kato run. Who the hell wouldn’t be arrogant, doing what he could do? He encounters our stuntman-hero Cliff Booth backstage during filming of an episode of The Green Hornet, with Booth standing by to play an extra. Pretty soon they’re engaging in a friendly best-of-three-falls marital arts match and it’s one fall each with the third round dead even when the fight’s broken up.
I’m no expert at hand-to-hand combat but there’s a misperception when Lee goes flying into the door of a car that Booth drove him there. But it seems as if Booth simply sidestepped a Lee attack and some deflected momentum took Lee into the car. That’s a fine point but an important one because there was quite the backlash from Lee admirers over the portrayal of “Bruce Lee” in Once Upon a Time. They said, How dare you disrespect our hero in this way? How can you imply some middle-aged stuntman could hold his own with the great Bruce Lee? Lee’s daughter led this charge and complained loudest of all.
Well, I loved both Bruce Lee and this depiction of Bruce Lee, and it’s pretty clear that Quentin Tarantino loved Bruce Lee and paid homage with this depiction. He brought Bruce Lee back to life, for crying out loud, and back into the spotlight in a fantastic way. Of course, this was a caricature of Bruce Lee like so much in the picture is caricature, but the reaction to my last column about the ending of Once Upon a Time indicated that for many people, the Bruce Lee vs. Cliff Booth sequence produced smiles to rival the ones resulting from that dreamlike happy ending when we fade out to Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski living happily ever after.
I wish Quentin Tarantino would bring my dad back to life like that. Go ahead make him an arrogant physics professor who speaks in the third person. I promise I won’t say, “How dare you besmirch my father’s memory!” because he’d be alive again. Heck, he’d be bigger than life, if only for 5 or 10 glorious cinematic minutes.