Big Trouble in Little China (1986/2001)

by David Sanjek


Jack Burton Trips Over the Gates Of Heaven

Like anyone in the film industry, director John Carpenter has had his professional ups and downs. His first feature, Dark Star (1974), progressed from a USC student project to a drive-in attraction. His breakthrough release, Halloween (1978), remains one of the most ruthlessly efficient genre exercises ever made, as well as one of the most financially lucrative independent features of all time. However, on more than one occasion, Carpenter has suffered from the collision between his creative instincts and whims of the movie-going audience. He either misread the public consciousness or attempted to lead it into territories it was unable or unwilling to explore.

This was most notably the case with Carpenter’s version of the science fiction classic, The Thing (1982). It is one of the darkest and most disturbing films in the genre. As horrific as a Hieronymous Bosch canvas come to life, The Thing depicts an alien life form committed to absorbing the identity and annihilating the flesh of its victims. Unfortunately, this film had the misfortune to be released the same year as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. If Spielberg offered a character from outer space that was warm and cuddly, Carpenter committed himself without reserve to one that was vicious and voracious. The audience at the time was repelled, although the film has gathered a dedicated and growing body of fans through its re-release on video and DVD.

cover art

Big Trouble in Little China

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, Victor Wong, James Hong

(20th Century Fox)

The other occasion on which Carpenter was inadvertently out of step with the public taste involved the 1986 feature Big Trouble in Little China. An elaborate, effects-laden studio release, it was a commercial bomb. As was the case with The Thing, it has over time developed a loyal following as evidenced by several websites dedicated to the material as well as the release of this enhanced edition of the film. The enhanced DVD includes deleted scenes and a commentary by Carpenter and his star and frequent collaborator, Kurt Russell. (The actor appeared in The Thing as well as the television movie, Elvis [1979], and the Escape from New York [1981] and Escape from L.A. [1996] sequence.)

The original script for Big Trouble in Little China took the form of a period Western, yet with the aide of screenwriter W .D. Richter (creator of another sci-fi classic, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension [1984]), the events were transposed to the present day. The storyline focuses on the extraordinary interactions between a brash buffoon, truck driver Jack Burton (Russell), and an array of Asian wizards, warriors, and demons led by the sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong). Burton comes to the aide of his good friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), whose fiancee, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), has been kidnapped by Lo Pan as part of an elaborate scheme to prolong his 3000-year streak of immortality. Accompanied by the rival sorcerer, Egg Shen (Victor Wong), and a crusading lawyer, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City), Jack and Wang storm Lo Pan’s fortress, rescue Wang’s shanghaied fiancee, and restore balance to the universe with the defeat of the villain.

When Big Trouble in Little China first appeared, the Western affection for Asian film was at a low point. Bruce Lee had died a decade before, and kung fu features were more the source of amusement than adulation. The works that Carpenter admired and imitated in making this picture—the Samo Hung feature Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1981) and Tsui Hark’s elaborate fantasy Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)—were unknown to the general public, as were successors to Bruce Lee, like Jackie Chan. In the years since, both Chan and Hung have appeared in either Western-produced movies or on television. In addition, a substantial number of pictures created in the Far East are now readily available in a variety of formats. As a result, audiences have become familiar with the visual extravagance and narrative audacity that are commonplace in these films, one of the factors that might account for the success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). It is hard not to succumb to the predilection for hyperkinetic action and technical flourishes that reign supreme in this sphere of world cinema. At a period when Hollywood seems addicted to recycling cliches and retreating from the pleasures of storytelling, even a run-of-the-mill picture produced in the Far East evidences a degree of craft and creativity that have eroded almost altogether in our native commercial cinema.

It was, if anything, the sheer giddiness of Hong Kong films in particular that attracted Carpenter, the devil-may-care manner in which these works attach disparate genre conventions to one another and go over the top, and to do so again and again before the final credits roll. However, Carpenter’s admiration for this kind of overkill does come as a bit of a surprise, for he is by and large an old-fashioned formalist, a disciple of Howard Hawks and other renowned directors of mainstream Hollywood cinema. His shooting style, typically set in wide-screen Panavision, routinely observes the classic verities of plot, character, and setting. For all its firepower and mayhem, his second feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), is Hawks’s classic John Wayne feature, Rio Bravo (1959), transposed to an urban setting. Halloween explores the in and outs of small town America with the topographical precision that John Ford brought to Monument Valley in his Westerns.

That is not to say that Carpenter is either humorless or retrograde, for clearly his approach in Big Trouble in Little China is predicated upon respecting narrative conventions but not necessarily taking them seriously. As he remarks in the commentary, the film executive Barry Diller took a strong dislike to this film, for he felt Jack Burton was not heroic enough. Truer words were never spoken, for, as Carpenter continues, an energetic effort was made to flip-flop the sidekick and the leading man. Jack is a bumbler, a braggart, a figure of flashy words who typically engages in misdirected or mistaken actions. He does possess the exceptional ability to catch objects moving swiftly through space, a skill that will be crucial to the outcome of the narrative. Nonetheless, Wang Chi is, in fact, the hero of the piece: resourceful, committed, and loyal to his friends and his fiancee. He may disdain the spells and potions conjured up by Egg Shen, but he never dismisses them. Jack thinks he saves the day and storms the gates of heaven; in end, he is just a burly bystander who helps out more often by accident than by intent.

More than likely, it was this implicit critique of cinematic conventions of masculinity that turned off much of the audience when the film was originally released. The mid-1980s was the heyday of Rambo and the Terminator, characters rooted in certitude and absent even the slightest taint of irony. Carpenter’s films have often incorporated a political dimension, obviously an implicit matter in this deliberately adolescent free-for-all. Jack Burton is the anti hunk, the inverse of the pectorally endowed fighting machines typified by Stallone and Schwarzenegger. The Occidental characters in Big Trouble in Little China are typically two steps behind, while the Asian Americans are three steps ahead. There are not many films that engage in a debate over Orientalism while incorporating a character who shoots lightning bolts from his fingers. That said, the film is probably best characterized by a comment from a review quoted in the DVD commentary by Kurt Russell: “Absolutely fabulous and terminally hip.”

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