Wednesday, April 17, 2013

John Carpenter: Big Trouble in Little China

Note: This is going to be a bit of an odd entry into this retrospective; I am going to focus more on Kurt Russell and what an action hero was in the 1980s than on Carpenter. For a better review of the film and a more comprehensive look at its production, check out J.D.’s fantastic post on the film from his Carpenter blog-a-thon a couple of years ago.

John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is a lively, funny, and energetic; the exact kind of follow-up he needed to remedy the effect his previous film — the prosaic friendly alien film Starman — left on viewers. Big Trouble in Little China is a movie that never fails to make smile — a joyful mix between old school Oater and Indiana Jones; it’s the type of film that is always good for whatever ails me in the way that Raiders of the Lost Ark or Die Hard or Lethal Weapon seem to always cheer me up. Nostalgia naturally plays a role in this — I grew up watching these types of action movies, and the aforementioned triad were some of my very favorites — but there is something about these types of action films that acts as the perfect remedy for a bad day or week. Whether it’s Nazis trying to steal the Ark of the Covenant, Germans taking a high rise hostage, or mystical Chinese bad guys running things from a lair beneath Chinatown, these are films that elicit genuine glee despite their ridiculous premises. They’re all filled with great setpieces, memorable dialogue, a wacky premise that makes you smile, and, most importantly, a great hero that the action revolves around. I think Big Trouble in Little China works (along with the aforementioned films) so well as this kind of “antidote movie” the characters (and the filmmakers) take all that ridiculousness very seriously — and so the laughs and the smiles and the thrills are all feel earned.

What really sets Big Trouble in Little China apart from a lot of the action/adventure films of the 1980s is its hero Jack Burton. A common factor in films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon and Raiders of the Lost Ark is the importance (and portrayal) of the hero. Obviously Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is the one that stands out from that aforementioned list since it is one of the most memorable characters in the history of film; however, John McClane and Martin Riggs are similar in that they react to the action around them seriously but always with a kind of old-fashioned heroic glee. Die Hard’s villain Hans Gruber asks McClane if he’s dealing with a “John Wayne? Rambo? Marshall Dillon” and of course McClane responds with his famous “I’ve always been partial to Roy Rogers myself” adding the line now synonymous with the character and the Die Hard franchise, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” Riggs saves the day at the end of Lethal Weapon first by busting through a door guns blazin’ and then in a good ‘ol fashioned mano-a-mano fight.

But Lethal Weapon humanized Riggs prior to those old-fashioned heroic moments in the same way McClane is humanized in Die Hard. These aren’t heroes in the typical Rambo mold, and I think one of the reasons they work (and the main reason Jack Burton works; yes, I’m getting to the movie at hand) is because they feel like real people. This isn’t the Rambo from Rambo II or Rambo III, and these aren’t any of the characters that a Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson or Steven Seagal would play; no, those heroes didn’t elicit any real emotion (whether it’s laughs or empathy) because those particular heroes (really the prototype for ‘80s action films) just walked around and killed people without having to face any adversity at all. They were perfect killing machines, nothing about them was human.

The stories of McClane and Riggs took place in recognizable locations like Los Angeles, but, let’s be honest, they really existed in just as much a fantasy world as the Chinatown that Jack Burton fights bad guys in. The major difference, however, is that the milieu of the ‘80s action film was always designed to feel real (the most overused environs being the seedy streets of a big city like Chicago or New York, or in the case of a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark at least somewhat historically authentic) whereas Carpenter really wants to do away with any semblance of realism with gaudy, neon, overstuffed Chinatown sets.  What made McClane and Riggs interesting heroes (whose popularity spawned many sequels for their respective characters) was that they bled, winced, acknowledged the shit situation they were in (something Chuck Norris or Sly Stallone would never do), and cracked wise about the fact they’re in that situation. They were fallible heroes — often making a wrong decision that would invariably get them and their cohorts into a stickier situation (this seemed especially true of Indiana Jones) — and that’s what made them and the film’s they inhabited so watchable. In other words, they were human.

Whew. Are you still with me? All of that is a round-about way of saying that what I love about Big Trouble in Little China is the film’s hero: Jack Burton (Kurt Russell). Like the aforementioned heroes, Burton rushes headlong into heroic deeds but sometimes finds himself in an even worse situation because of his eagerness to be a hero. Burton, despite trying his best at playing the role of hero, is somewhat of an involuntary heroic figure (like McClane, whose entire character works because he’s always finding himself thrust into a heroic situation by being in the wrong place at the wrong time; well, at least in the first two films it worked that way). His initial motivation for tagging along on this particular adventure with his friend and fellow poker player Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is simple: Wang owes him some money. Carpenter wisely flips the prototype of the ‘80s action here and has Burton succeed more in spite of himself than because of the fact that he’s some kind macho he-man.

When he leaves for the airport to pick up Wang’s fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), who is arriving from China, the Lords of Death, a Chinese gang, kidnaps Miao. Burton gets involved because, well, because that’s what American men are supposed to do, right? So Burton is fighting with the Lords of Death in the airport but can’t save Wang’s fiancée (uttering one of my favorite “macho” Jack Burton lines of the movie: “son of a bitch must pay”), causing him to further tag along with Wang to rescue Miao and becoming a more proactive hero (again, like McClane). Burton eventually finds himself involved in an alley attack where sorcerers can summon the elements and bright blue lights shoot out of people’s mouths. Burton seems simultaneously unfazed and in awe by a lot of what’s happening (“I’m a reasonable guy, but I have seen some very unreasonable things” is a great Jack Burton line). He’ll wonder just what in the hell a giant flotating blob is doing in front of him (“Don’t tell me!?”) but then he’ll try and kill it. He’ll wonder how in the hell a guy can shoot blue light out of his mouth, but then he’ll proceed to tell the tale about how he ran him over with his semi-truck like it was no big deal. It’s this constant awareness by Burton that makes the film work.

No matter how misguided or bumbling Burton may be, he always carries himself like a hero. In one of Kurt Russell’s finest moments as an actor, at the end of the film, Burton tries to start what will no doubt be his most harrowing monologue: “You know what Jack Burton always says in a time like this” which is interrupted with a natural, “who?” response. Jack, indignant in his response, snaps back, “Jack Burton! Me!” It’s such a wonderfully delivered line because the tone of his reply is that of a man who feels nobody has been paying attention; Jack Burton is owed some dues. I actually think Burton is a better character than Russell’s more famous Carpenter character, Snake Plissken. Sure, Plissken was cool, but there’s something more endearing about how Carpenter and Russell took elements of John Wayne and Indiana Jones and created Jack Burton. Since Carpenter wants Big Trouble in Little China to be a western (like many of his films), then perhaps this analogy works: Plissken is the “cool” Man with No Name whereas Burton is any number of “plain” John Wayne characters. And even though my head knows that the “cooler” character is more interesting, my heart finds the more iconic and traditional western hero to be more endearing and entertaining.

Burton’s heroics (or failed attempts at heroics; this is, after all, this is the guy who shoots a gun in the typical macho ‘80s action movie hero kind of way, and is then knocked out by falling debris caused by his careless firing) are almost always misguided and leads the group into further danger. In the film’s biggest laugh, towards the film’s climax, Burton rallies the troops prior to opening a door that will lead them to Lo Pan (James Hong), the main baddie (the film, with the way it moves through certain “levels” of bad guys, really plays like one of those ‘80s beat ‘em up side-scroller arcade games like Double Dragon or Final Fight). It’s a classic “get behind me” or “follow the leader” type of speech found in countless actions films. However, Carpenter’s take on it (and Russell’s execution of it) is flawless comedy with the perfect punchline (such great timing by Russell) as Burton opens the door to reveal not just one bad guy but a handful of henchmen. He then immediately closes the door and says, “We may be trapped.” It’s just the perfect encapsulation of Burton as overzealous hero.

As I mentioned earlier, this wasn’t going to be like a regular entry into the retrospective since I wanted to primarily focus on Burton-as-heroic-figure because the film’s success is wrapped up in Russell’s performance. And he’s more than up to the task. I mean, what’s an Indiana jones without Harrison Ford? Well, I find it hard to imagine Jack Burton and Big Trouble in Little China without Kurt Russell (even though Carpenter wanted a bigger star for the lead to combat Eddie Murphy’s simultaneous Hong Kong action/fantasy film The Golden Child). Burton isn’t a sharpshooting killer like Martin Riggs; he isn’t a trained cop like McClane; nor is he a smart, archeology professor that dabbles in global adventure like Indiana Jones; however, he does share in their everyman qualities, and his bumbling braggadocios nature — no matter the odds against him or the scenario he’s in, Jack Burton is quite confident in his ability to save the day — certainly makes him a likeable Indiana Jones-esque hero.

The elements surrounding the film’s action are indeed wacky, but Carpenter takes these elements very seriously. There is a love and respect evident throughout each fight scene for the Hong Kong action films not yet as ingrained in popular culture in 1986 as they are now. After the wonderfully fun opening 30 minutes, the film settles down into a groove, and what follows is essentially one chase scene followed by a big action scene followed by some spectacular setpieces...and then it all kind of repeats itself as the same movie plays out in the second and third acts.

But it doesn’t matter that the film runs through all of its great setpieces in the first act, and it doesn’t matter that the film kind of repeats itself. If I didn’t love the characters and the gleefully insane adventure they embark on so much, then perhaps I would consider the film’s redundant setpieces to be a negative (kind of like Escape from New York). But they aren’t because I have so much fun watching this movie that I hardly care about its repetitiveness towards the end. The film is a lean 100 minutes and despite never stopping for character development, we don’t feel beaten down by the film (it reminds me of Raiders in that regard: a film that just goes non-stop but doesn’t feel relentless in the least; although, what makes Raiders the stone-cold classic that it is is the fact that Spielberg was able to take Indy to a lot of interesting settings – Carpenter didn’t have that luxury, instead utilizing his one, magnificent, set over and over) even though it rarely stops to catch its breath.

Yes, the action and the setpieces are fantastic, but it’s Russell’s performance that keeps me coming back. Big Trouble in Little China marked the end of a decade long collaboration between the star and his director, which included some of Carpenter’s best (The Thing) and most loved (Escape from New York) work. The two wouldn’t work again until the ‘90s on the much maligned Plissken sequel, but it certainly goes down as one of the most fruitful actor/director collaborations of the ‘80s. I may not be a huge fan of Escape from New York, but there’s no denying Plissken’s appeal and popularity, and Russell’s performance was one of the primary catalysts for that film’s success. Russell has the same effect here; it’s just that I think the film that surrounds his performance works so much better than Escape from New York. It’s a shame the film wasn’t as big as Russell and Carpenter thought it would be (they share on the DVD commentary that test screenings were extremely encouraging, but the studio didn’t know how to promote it, so the film was dead on arrival) because the ending really seemed to be setting itself up for the return of Jack Burton. I love Russell as an actor and a lot of the performances post-Big Trouble in Little China are really quite strong (I love the underrated Breakdown, for example, or Ron Shelton’s Dark Blue), but, man, he did his best work with Carpenter.

Big Trouble in Little China also marked the end of an era for Dean Cundey and Carpenter. After falling a bit out of favor with the director, Cundey was absent from the shoot of Christine and Starman. He was called back to work by Carpenter because Big Trouble in Little China was such a huge production — with so many things pulling Carpenter in a myriad of directions — that he needed technical people he could trust and that could make decisions that Carpenter would approve of without him having to be there to okay them. Cundey’s work is outstanding here (again, I want to mention the underwater and underground lair sequences)  per usual as his camera moves gracefully through the streets and through Lo Pan’s lair in the same way the camera moved through the corridors of the research center in The Thing. It’s too bad that he never worked with Carpenter again (although things worked out okay for Cundey as he would go on to shoot Jurassic Park) because the two created some of the most iconic horror imagery of the ‘70s (Halloween) and ‘80s (The Thing).

Big Trouble in Little China contains some of the best sets and effects that Carpenter had conjured up to that point in his career (with the help of Cundey and Production Designer John Lloyd). Whether it’s in the underground water scenes (evoking Inferno, although I don’t know that was the intent since I’m not certain Carpenter was ever a fan of Argento), the alley fight, or the constant running around Lo Pan’s lair a la an episode of “Scooby-Doo” (there’s even a great scene where Cattrall is pulled into a secret door in the wall by a monster after we see the eyes from a piece of wall art dart back and forth), Big Trouble in Little China is just so much damn fun that it’s a shame it went right over the heads of the studio executives who didn’t know what to do with it at the time.

Looking at all of the evidence on paper — and with the benefit of hindsight — one wonders just how in the world Carpenter’s film wasn’t a big success (meanwhile, Murphy’s The Golden Child was a modest success compared to other Murphy action films, but it would have easily been Carpenter’s highest grossing film had he taken the assignment). But that’s because we’re either used-to or more accepting of the Hong Kong action tropes in 2013. Really, Big Trouble in Little China, with its amazingly choreographed fight scenes that act as a precursor to what would be popularized in 1999 with The Matrix and in 2000 with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was just too far ahead of its time. At the time of the film’s release, only cineastes and genre fanatics were familiar with the cinema of Hong Kong (and really only the most ardent of fan would seek the films out since they weren’t readily available). Whether it was Tsui Hark or Yuen Woo-ping or John Woo, Hong Kong action cinema was beginning to breakthrough in American popular culture, and Carpenter was one of the first, if not the first, American filmmakers to make a film that wonderfully mixed the fantasy/mystical elements of the Hong Kong action film (the wirework in the film is one of the first instances in American action films where it was used so extensively and in the style of “wire-fu”) and put it in a western context.

And that’s one of the reasons why the film has a huge cult following; it was just too ahead of its time, but audiences today have really embraced the film as something special and iconic of ‘80s geek culture. Big Trouble in Little China remains one of Carpenter’s most enjoyable films (the oft-used phrase, “one of my favorites but not one of his best” comes to mind when I think of the film), but the poor promotion of the film, the constant over-the-shoulder producing by the studio during production, and the disheartening box-office returns crushed Carpenter. He would leave the studio system he so badly wanted to be apart of just a decade earlier and return to small, close-knit productions, working for an independent studio with Universal distributing the films. His first project away from the studios: a return to horror.


  1. Always great to see some love for Russell and his memorable collaborations with Carpenter. They really did bring out the best in each other and even in a lackluster film like ESCAPE FROM LA, there is still stuff in there that I can enjoy and that's due in large part to what Russell brings to the table. But during the '80s, he and Carpenter were on fire, really cranking out one fantastic genre film after another. Amazing!

    I saw BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA at an impressionable age and, as a result, I will always have fond memories of it. It's one of those rare films I can put on at almost any time and get into no matter what.

    Thanks for the shout-out, my friend. You really did this film justice.