Once Upon a Time in Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino is responding to criticism he has received over the portrayal of the late Bruce Lee in the hit film.

Lee is placed by Mike Moh, and in the film, he appears cocky and claims to have “crippled” Cassius Clay (aka Muhammed Ali). Brad Pitt’s character, a stuntman named Cliff Booth, laughs at Lee over the remarks, then challenges him to a “friendly” contest that ends with Pitt’s Booth getting knocked out.

But friends and family of Lee, who died in 1973 at age 32, said that his onscreen persona was quite different from the real Lee. Lee’s training partner Dan Inosanto said that Lee “would never have said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshipped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on.”

Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee told Variety: “He was continuously marginalised and treated like kind of a nuisance of a human being by white Hollywood, which is how he's treated in the film by Quentin Tarantino.”

But in an interview in Russia, Tarantino stood by his remarks, calling him “kind of an arrogant guy.”

He said: “I heard him say things like that, to that effect. If people are saying, 'Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,' well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read … She absolutely said it.”

Tarantino also said Booth could have beat Lee up: “The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret. He has killed many men in WWII in hand-to-hand combat. What Bruce Lee is talking about in the whole thing is that he admires warriors. He admires combat, and boxing is a closer approximation of combat as a sport. Cliff is not part of the sport that is like combat, he is a warrior. He is a combat person.”

Tarantino went on: “If Cliff were fighting Bruce Lee in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden, Bruce would kill him. But if Cliff and Bruce were fighting in the jungles of the Philippines in a hand-to-hand combat fight, Cliff would kill him.”