Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
What follows is the third in an ongoing series of essays produced in conjunction with The Cineastes.
Big Trouble in Little China charts the adventures of truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his inadvertent quest to save his beloved truck and quasi-sweetheart Gracie (a post-Porkys, pre-Sex and the City Kim Cattrall) after they are dragged into the underworld that lies beneath San Francisco’s Chinatown. With his trusty sidekick Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who himself is searching for his green-eyed fiance (Suzee Pai) in tow, Burton encounters sorcerers, warriors and other assorted mythical creatures, in a bid to rescue Wang’s girlfriend from the clutches of Lo Pan (James Hong), a 2,000 year old Chinese mystic.
Originally envisioned as a western, the decision to transfer the films locale into that of a modern setting was inspired by the success of Rosemary’s Baby, and that films ability to tell a period tale in a contemporary setting. The use of modern day San Francisco works a charm, and the transition isn’t noticeable at all. Burton’s truck was originally intended to be a horse, but aside from that very little differs.
“I’m a reasonable guy. But, I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.” Jack Burton
Kurt Russell is great as Jack Burton, the all-American mesh-cap wearing hero. Well, I say hero, but when it comes down to it he doesn’t actually do anything particularly heroic, outside of killing Lo Pan. As noted in several places by Carpenter, including the films DVD audio commentary, the hero role becomes somewhat reversed during Big Trouble in Little China, and instead of he being the hero, the character who would traditionally be referred to as the sidekick, Wang Chi assumes the mantle of exemplar. In Russell’s own words “Jack is and isn’t the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He’s a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up”. Russell is supported by an array of Asian-American actors, who’s performances verge on caricature at times, but I guess that lends more to the material as opposed to genuinely poor performances, which is something I will address elsewhere in this piece. Kim Cattrall is likable enough as Gracie Law, the appropriately named lawyer, and actually makes an effective couple alongside Russell. Victor Wong, as the bus driving wizard Egg Shen, who’s police interview marks the opening of Big Trouble in Little China is a personal favourite, portraying a quirky and interesting character.
In terms of Carpenter’s body of work, Big Trouble in Little China fits in nicely alongside the likes of They Live and Escape From New York. While a shade lighter than his earlier work, and removed of the horror tone that he is so closely associated with, traits of those earlier films are apparent. The prosthetics of The Thing are expanded on in Big Trouble in Little China, with an entire character not only consumed by them, but morphed with them to create a fully functioning human-prosthetic mongrel. Whereas those earlier prosthetics were used to strike fear into the hearts of the audience, here they are quite clearly used for comic gain and mild peril at best (worst). I guess Big Trouble in Little China actually marks a major departure for Carpenter, or at least a cruxes point in his work. Having had a terrible experience making the film he quit Hollywood and returned to the more independent stylings of his earlier work, and the type of films in which he made his name. They Live would prove to be the only quality picture that followed, with the likes of Ghosts of Mars, Vampires and Escape from L.A littering the latter half of his C.V.
“Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.” Jack Burton
Alongside shooting and writing Big Trouble in Little China Carpenter also composed the score, with the films theme tune, provided courtesy of his band the Coupe De Villes (featuring Carpenter’s Halloween star Tony Moran on keys). Its a synth-based effort, reminiscent of his signature sound, and is great for comedy value if little else.
Big Trouble in Little China could be interpreted as an allegory commenting on the USA’s role within the world. David Sirotapolitical writer for The Huffington Post laid down his argument that this was the case in an article last year, claiming that Big Trouble in Little China, one of the two best-worst films of all time, was a “highly accurate — if artistically absurd — portrayal of a deeply important aspect of how America sees itself in the world.”. Its an interesting theory, and one that is reinforced heavily by several aspects of the film (the idea of the American non-hero “saving” the day etc), and while I wouldn’t put the concept past such a culturally aware filmmaker as Carpenter I would question its relevency at the time of the films production some 23 years ago.
Big Trouble in Little China came at a point when post-Bruce Lee America was obsessed with cultural fare of Asian origin. Nintendo was on the rise, bringing with it a form of video game culture so far unseen. Big Trouble in Little China was born out of the demand for pseudo-Asian inspired entertainment, and while its fared a lot better than most of its contemporaries (Year of the Dragon I’m looking at you), a patronising tone is still detectable. As mentioned above, a few of the performances suffer greatly as a result of the casting of second or third generation Asian-American actors in many of the roles. In a roundabout way this actually compliments the cartoon-style nature of the film though, and isn’t too distracting. I think one of the key problems with a film of this ilk is that it doesn’t stand up too well to overtly theoretical scrutiny, which is almost kind of trivial considering it probably was never meant to. Big Trouble in China is an enormous amount of fun provided you can leave your brain at the door, and don’t over-think it, which is somewhat ironic coming from the guy writing a critical thesis of it!
As usual, the rest of The Cineastes have also done pieces on Big Trouble in Little China. Please check them out -
Adam Cook at The Bronze
Amber at Nouvelle Vague Cinematheque
Crap Monster at YGG’noise
Doc Oz at The 3rd Act
Edouard Hill at Allan Gray’s Imagination
Jake at Filmbound
Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema
Kurt Walker at Walking in the Cinema
Matthias Galvin at Framed
Tom Day at Serious About Cinema
Witkacy at Inertial Frame