In all that has already been written and said about Quentin Tarantino’s latest (and supposedly penultimate) movie, one thing that comes up again and again is the surprisingly disrespectful way in which the character of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is portrayed. His one really crucial scene sees him being arrogant toward stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is doing guest work on the Green Hornet series, ultimately taking him on in a “friendly” sparring match. Cliff holds his own, which seems improbable, to say the least. One function of this scene is to foreshadow Cliff’s abilities in a later, more serious fight scene, but I believe there is something more to it. In fact, this scene may be the key to really understanding the entire movie.
Excessive reverence for anything has never been something for which Tarantino is especially known. In fact, irreverently deconstructing various aspects of pop culture has become one of his trademarks over the course of his nine movies, from Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” in Reservoir Dogs to the Spider-Man and Superman mythos in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. He has, however, always shown a certain respect for the things he loves, which is why it’s so surprising to see him, of all people, turning a legend like Lee into a buffoon, a bully, a punchline.
The most plausible explanation for this scene, which is not only strangely disrespectful but also incongruous with Lee’s real-life reputation as a generally nice guy who avoided fights rather than instigating them, is that it merely represents Cliff’s unreliable memory of how things happened, that he (perhaps unconsciously) positions himself as the hero, the effortlessly cool guy who is in the right, with Lee as the arrogant antagonist of the situation. If this is the case, then what’s to stop us from assuming the movie’s climactic showdown with members of the Manson Family is also being presented to us via Cliff’s distorted point-of-view?
Mark Wahlberg infamously suggested that, had he only been on the right plane at the right time, the attacks of 9/11 would never have been carried out because he would have personally foiled those dastardly terrorists with punches and, presumably, action-hero one-liners. This may be what is really going on in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood‘s gonzo climax, when Cliff almost single-handedly changes history by demolishing the Manson crew after they choose his buddy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as their victim instead of his next-door neighbors in the Tate-Polanski home.
Perhaps instead of objective reality, this scene is meant to exist in the landscape of Cliff’s aging tough-guy imagination, like the earlier fight with Bruce Lee, a place in which he can rewrite history with his fists and provide a “happily ever after” not only for himself and Rick, but also the world at large (or at least all of Hollywood, which might as well be the world, to both Tarantino and his characters). The possibility that it is all just a wistful fantasy is underlined by the fact that Rick uses a prop weapon from one of his old movies when he eventually joins the fight, as well as his subsequent warm introduction to his neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), which calls back to an earlier conversation with Cliff in which Rick fantasized about the possibility of his being cast in the next Polanski film due to his advantageous proximity to the hot up-and-coming director.
Then again, it could be that it’s all meant to be taken as the objective reality of the Tarantinoverse’s history, like Django Unchained and, especially, Inglourious Basterds before it. If the characters of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction live in a world in which Hitler was shot to rags in a movie theater in France, it is no huge stretch to imagine they also live in a world in which Charles Manson never became a household name.