Thursday, January 7, 2010

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Part V in a John Carpenter film quest.

Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong
Written by: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter (adaptation)
Directed by: John Carpenter

"When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: 'Have ya paid your dues, Jack?' 'Yessir, the check is in the mail'."

Way before the East-meets-West action movie became profitable with American audiences, there was 1986's Big Trouble in Little China. This is one of those movies that was tailor-made for the 80s Summer blockbuster crowd. It's an action/adventure/comedy/monster movie/kung fu/ghost story/western that hits the ground running and leaves the viewer working to keep up. It's got it all: swordfights, damsels, demons, gunfights, standoffs, high-flying kung fu, Chinese black magic and enough witty banter to keep things light and comical.

The story centers around loudmouth truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell). After delivering his freight in San Francisco, Jack meets his old friend, Wang Chi, and drives him to the airport to meet his fiancée, arriving from China. Also awaiting the flight are the Lords of Death, a street gang operating under the rarely seen David Lo Pan in Chinatown. A scuffle ensues, and in the confusion, the Lords of Death make off with Wang's bride-to-be, with Jack and Wang hot on their heels. The chase leads our heroes deep beneath Chinatown, in the criminal underworld ruled by the mysterious Lo Pan - a 200 year-old sorcerer cursed to walk the earth until he marries and sacrifices a woman with green eyes. When they find out Lo Pan seeks to marry Wang's fiancée, so begins a daring adventure into the murky waters of Lo Pan's domain.

Carpenter keeps the action moving from the start, leaving the movie jam-packed with high-flying martial arts, gunplay, and snappy dialogue. When there's no physical action onscreen, the audience is preoccupied with the mystery surrounding just what Lo Pan actually is (and Burton's comic inability to comprehend this information).

But if there is a fulcrum on which everything in Big Trouble in Little China rests, it is the film's main character. Because Jack Burton has never seen anything that's going on in the movie (nor heard any of the myths), he is the audience's guide through the adventure. He shares our reactions, and grounds the movie in some kind of reality we can work with. Burton is also Carpenter's stab at the quintessential 80s action hero. He's the mulleted meathead, who's quick with the one-liners (and this is Carpenter's one-liner factory if ever there was one) , and charming with the ladies (or at least he thinks he is).

But what separates Burton from the Stallone, Norris, and Seagal characters of the decade ... well, to put it simply, he's an idiot. He's a bit of a braggart, brash, and overly self-confident, and he would fit the Indiana Jones mold if he actually got things done. But he's more talk than action - all swagger, no substance, as it were (one gets the sense that Russell's playing Burton as an inept John Wayne, which only makes things funnier, in this case). And as the movie gets going, it becomes evident that the Jack and Wang roles are reversed; Wang becomes the ever capable leading man, while Jack ends up becoming the trusty sidekick (he just doesn't know it). What kind of action hero tosses his knife across the room after jerking it out of its sheath, and then spends the entire fight looking for the weapon while his partner does all the work? Or knocks himself out with falling rubble after shooting his gun in the air (and again, leaving Wang to all the fighting)? For me, Jack Burton is Carpenter's most entertaining character to date; you just end up sitting there wide-eyed at this guy's shenanigans.

Big Trouble in Little China
is the very definition of a cult film. Virtually ignored upon release in 1986, the movie rightfully gained a cult following on home video (which was really a godsend in the 80s). I guess it's just one of those movies where you either get it, or you don't. In my opinion, I think Big Trouble in Little China stands as Carpenter's most entertaining work. It's escapism in its purest form, from back in the days when escapism ruled the multiplexes.


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