One of the most startling moments in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the scene in which Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth humiliates Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) after he boasts of his martial-arts prowess. It has drawn criticism from Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee for portraying her late father as an “arrogant asshole who was full of hot air”, while Tarantino has defended his film as a work of fiction, albeit one, he insists, that has some grounding in truth. It’s sad that while the Pulp Fiction film-maker chose to lionise David Carradine, the star of 1970s TV show Kung Fu, in his Kill Bill movies, he decided to bring the late Hong Kong star back to life by portraying him as full of youthful truculence and hubris.
After all, Kung Fu would never have been commissioned without the 70s martial-arts craze that was largely fuelled by Lee’s early films. And it’s probably fair to say that without the TV show, Kill Bill would have been a different beast. Tarantino not only borrows the TV show’s star, he half-inched its blend of eastern and western influences to frame the two parts of his own endeavour. Yet, while Carradine was treated with the utmost reverence in Kill Bill, Lee, without whom the American star would most likely never have had a career in martial-arts films, is depicted as a cocky idiot. As a creative decision, this is a bit like preferring the squeaky clean Pat Boone version of Ain’t That a Shame to Fats Domino’s full-blooded, velvety original.
Tarantino is not the only figure in Hollywood who owes something to Lee’s legacy. Given the news that Universal is set to bring Kung Fu back to life as a big-screen remake, surely it’s about time to right the wrongs suffered by Lee more than four decades ago.
Even Lee’s most casual fans should be aware that the star of Enter the Dragon was passed over for Carradine, with the suspicion being that TV executives preferred a white actor over the heavily accented Lee to play the mixed-race Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine. Lee’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell, in her memoir, even fuelled rumours that her late husband had come up with the idea for Kung Fu, and it seems that Lee was working on a similar concept titled The Warrior at the time of his death.
Kung Fu went on to be one of the most celebrated TV shows of the 70s. Watching and enjoying its iconic moments – Caine’s early tutelage by Keye Luke’s Master Po as a “young grasshopper” in those much-imitated flashback sequences; the cavalcade of film and TV stars from William Shatner to Sandra Locke who appeared during the show’s three seasons in supporting roles – one is forced to remind oneself that the series represents one of the worst examples of yellowface in TV history. And yet, there it is.
Perhaps, in reverence to the show’s cultural origins, Universal could make a gesture to the Lee estate. It would be fitting if some of the action star’s ideas from the long lost The Warrior ended up making it into the new Kung Fu, though that prospect has probably been diminished by the existence of Cinemax’s own Warrior show, which Lee’s daughter Shannon oversees.
Still, there are other ways to ensure the film does not experience the ignominy of its TV predecessor. The very least Universal can do is to ensure Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw director David Leitch casts an actor of Asian heritage this time around.