Big Trouble in Little China
Much as I’m okay with Dwayne Johnson, even if he gets a bit touchy about critics lambasting his shitty comedies (no one’s asking you to make them, Dwayne), I find it frankly impossible to believe he’s a huge fan of Big Trouble in Little China. If he were, he wouldn’t go near the prospect of remaking it with a Rock-sized barge pole. How are you going to replicate such unbridled lunacy and offbeat idiosyncrasy? Try really hard? It’s tantamount to redoing Hudson Hawk. Or, for that matter, scribe W D Richter’s other cult fave, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (which I’m not such a huge fan of, but there’s no denying it’s bug-nuts crazy). No, the only way you show respect for Big Trouble in Little China is, to paraphrase Egg Shen’s appeal in the picture’s studio-edicted introductory scene “You leave Big Trouble in Little China alone!”
Unlike The Thing, John Carpenter’s uber-masterpiece, Big Trouble in Little China is not a thing of perfection. For a start, it lacks the same assured direction of that four-years-earlier pairing with Kurt Russell, despite the (sadly last, and some might say the parting of ways spelled the beginning of the end for the director’s career) reunion with ace cinematographer Dean Cundey. It’s a picture you love for its flaws as much as its majestic subversion. Much like Hudson Hawk for that matter, and it’s debatable if either could have been hits even if their respective studios had fully got behind them (the commonly cited reason for Big Trouble in Little China failing); they’re too irreverent, too mocking of genre conventions. I well recall the tagline from the video cover: “A Mystical, Action, Adventure, Comedy, Kung Fu, Monster, Ghost Story!” On one level it’s quite appropriate, or another it illustrates Fox had no idea how to sell it.
I’ve always tended towards such fare, and in the mid-80s, as a mid-teen, I had little awareness of flops versus hits, except on the high end of the scale, thus the likes of Innerspace and Big Trouble in Little China occupied the same “popular” space as Gremlins or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; home video was a great leveller for the maligned box office bomb, and so it became an instant cult favourite. Which is appropriate, perhaps, as Carpenter’s inspiration was what were, to the American market, cult movies.
David Lo Pan: Now, this really pisses me off to no end.
The director could easily have fallen foul of racist cultural stereotyping with Big Trouble in Little China, since it intentionally plays off the Fu Manchu archetype. Certainly, this charge has been levelled at the picture, but Carpenter is clearly very conscious of, and intent on subverting, the traditional western handling of these tropes. Added to which, his affection for Kung Fu movies, and Hong Kong cinema generally, shines through (he was a huge fan of Xu Warriors – I can only wonder how this would have turned out if he had seen Mr Vampire, released the same year as Big Trouble in Little China, before putting the picture into production).
It hadn’t been so very long since leading western actors were still donning yellow face in major movies (Peter Ustinov in Disney’s One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, Peter Sellers in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen) and TV productions (the actually rather astute Doctor Who story, in terms of scriptwriting, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, falls at this hurdle in casting John Bennett as villain Li H’sen Chang). Big Trouble in Little China avoids this, but more than that, it doesn’t just make its villain a one-note Machiavelli.
Sure, David Lo Pan wants his green-eyed girl (made a nonsense of by Gracie Law also being eligible), but his lustiness for his prize is revealed in a very funny Albert Steptoe “dirty old man” manner, playing with Gracie’s blouse as he trundles around in his wheel chair. James Hong, a TV veteran and then some who also appeared in Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child the same year and Blade Runner, embraces the chance to go for it with his dual-ish roles, mixing broad villainy with incontinence.
(The age aspect is also notable for, despite being in comedy mode, inviting comparisons with Star Wars in its old guys battling out; Egg Chen’s Yoda to Lo Pan’s Emperor/Darth, who summoning magic becomes a vastly more powerful being. One can’t help but conclude the actual stage for their fight, a shadow play via enchanted rings, would have been a much better approach for Lucas’ prequels than the ridiculous whirling, twirling CGI Sonic Hedge Yoda. Victor Wong’s Egg is just as memorable as Hong, to wit his casual dismissal of the contents of his Six-Demon bag: “Wind, fire, all that kind of thing”).
Jack Burton: You know what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this?
Jack Burton: Jack Burton. Me!
More than that, though, and key to the picture’s cult status, Carpenter entirely undercuts the idea of the stalwart, rugged American hero having at the devilish foreigner. Jack Burton is a delusional chump, a John Wayne (Russell also gave him a touch of Nicholson) braggart with serviceable card-playing skills but little else to shout about. As Carpenter observed, “the Caucasian hero is sidekick to the real hero”, who is Dennis Dun’s Wang.
Although, this needs framing slightly, because it makes it sound as if Dun walks off with the picture. He doesn’t. He’s fine, but a little on the forgettable side (it’s understandable that Carpenter wanted the most obvious name, Jackie Chan, a ball of charisma, but he declined).
An apt analogy might be that Russell is Bob Hope to Dun’s Bing Crosby. As in, Crosby never was that interesting in the Road movies. While the studio wanted Indiana Jones, the result was such that “I guess you could say we fucked up the action hero”. Carpenter’s irreverence can be seen in a pronounced way here, for the first time since Dark Star; it’s easy to forget, with all that horror (albeit the occasional burst of Donald Pleasance hiding behind bushes in Halloween can’t really be taken very seriously) that he has a funny bone. In the intervening twelve years, the likes of Joe Dante and Terry Gilliam and Sam Raimi were inhabiting the post-modern realm far more conspicuously. Indeed, Jack Burton is an antecedent of Ash in terms of the inept hero, even down to doing that one competent thing; in some respects, it might have been more consistent if Jack hadn’t proved “It’s all in the reflexes” but one flash of legitimate hero-play was probably the only low-lying fruit available to the studio.
The original Gary Goldman (Total Recall) and David Z Weinstein screenplay had been intended as a western, and despite Carpenter always having wanted to make one, it was much shrewder to turn it contemporary, with the different juxtapositions and contrasts that offered. Gracie Law (an outstanding Kim Cattrall, who has great chemistry with Russell: “I know, there’s a problem with your face”) is straight out of screwball comedies in terms of delivery (“Don’t panic, it’s only me, Gracie Law”); Carpenter, a huge Hawks fan, loved this element.
And, if Jack exhibits the detached quality of Bogie (“God, aren’t you even going to kiss her goodbye?”) to matters of the heart, his slobbishness is 100 percent ’80s man, running about in a wife-beater (pre-Willis), eating a big sandwich while spouting nonsense into his CB radio (even then about a decade past their peak: “Have you paid your dues? Yes sir, the cheque is in the mail”), and sporting all manner of inappropriate attire, from a less-than-manly kimono to a loud ’70s-suit-and-glasses cheesefest (“Take your tie off, please”; “Yeah, I know what you mean. My wife gave it to me for Christmas”).
And then there’s his response to the effects of Egg’s potion – “Is it getting hot in here, or is just me?”; the elevator scene is a classic – and wearing Gracie’s lipstick all over his face when it comes to his one cool moment (Carpenter and Russell agreed just to go for it when they improvised this, and it’s tonally perfect).
Eddie Lee: First time you ever plugged somebody?
Jack Burton: Course not!
There’s also his gormless bravado, including the supra-Wayne “The hell it was!”, “Afraid? Are you kidding?”, “I was born ready”, “Son of a bitch must pay”, his reaction to (probably) killing someone for the first time, his entirely perplexed response to Chinese monsters and mysticism (“What? Huh? What’ll come out no more?!”, “Terrific! A six-demon bag. Sensational. What’s in it, Egg?”), and knocking himself out by firing his gun at the ceiling and getting rained on by plaster. And, when he does get into a fight, he spends the duration with his boot stuck to a bad guy while Wang tidies up. Russell rules as Jack Burton, deconstructing the previous heroes he played for Carpenter (Macready, Snake Plissken) with eager aplomb. He’s a great physical comedian, and it’s a shame that he hasn’t been able to show those (pork) chops more frequently and expressly since.
Jack Burton: Everybody relax, I’m here.
On this evidence, though, Carpenter would never have found his footing in the blockbuster arena; big action set pieces just aren’t his thing; tension is (Escape from New York just about works because he’s walking the line, most of the time; Escape from LA flounders horribly). So the street-alley showdown between warring factions is full of great moments – the appearance of the Storms with oversized baskets as hats, flipping knives like boomerangs, brandishing rotor-powered hand devices; the lightning effects, Lo Pan’s light-cascading mouth – but the staging is all a little off. And the music, while it’s kind of charming, is entirely one-note, so there’s no modification in tone during such sequences. Carpenter getting wholly on board with the electric guitar wasn’t such a good idea.
But this is a picture where Richard Edlund’s effects – Carpenter was reportedly dissatisfied, but Edlund protested that he was under-budgeted – are as signature a contributor to the bizarre sense of humour as any other element. They include the exploding Rain (Peter Kwong), the eyeball drone (“What the hell is that?”), Lo Pan’s translucent skin, and the hairy beast that gets the final word, or growl (who didn’t want a sequel at the time? It was a Doc Savage moment for me). And then there’s the set design, which takes in the kind of interiors Spielberg productions were throwing at us (The Goonies, Temple of Doom) but to suitably off-kilter effect (a particular highlight is Jack rolling backwards down a corridor in a runaway wheelchair, coming to a halt at the lip of a bottomless well).
Jack Burton: We really shook the pillars of heaven didn’t we, Wang?
Carpenter had redeemed self in the eyes of studio heads with Star Man, after the failure of The Thing and the disappointing performance of Christine (since Stephen King fare was expected to do Carrie or The Shining business; Carpenter had intended to make Firestarter before he fell out of it, and the less-than-memorable final picture surfaced). He and Russell blamed Big Trouble in Little China’s failure on a “sabotagical” release campaign by Fox (which had Aliens to concentrate on that summer), but as noted above, weird pictures of its ilk rarely do well; it’s practically made with cult success riveted to its hide after the fact.
Gracie Law: See you around Burton?
Jack Burton: Never can tell.
Which brings us back to the prospects for the remake. There are certain Carpenter pictures – the horror ones, mainly – where you can understand the appetite to go there again, even if they have entirely failed to match the originals (the Halloweens, The Fog). Meanwhile, his action-skweing fare – Assault on Precinct 13, poor Escape from New York has Robert Rodriguez attached – ends up forgettably bland. But attempting Big Trouble in Little China is like trying to redo Dark Star, or, for that matter Dante’s Gremlins; it’s the sensibility of the director that made it what it is, and unless you find someone with their own quirky take on things – in which case, they would probably want to go off and do their own quirkily original piece – you’re on a hiding to nothing. So I’ll reiterate: leave Big Trouble in Little China, and Jack Burton, alone!