Last Friday, I wrote here about the controversial Dino De Laurentiis version of Flash Gordon (1980), a genre film concerning a dashing American hero uniting an alien world, Mongo and bringing justice to the oppressed citizens there.
Another one of my all-time favorite cult movies is John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a film set entirely on Earth but which nonetheless shares some important qualities with Flash Gordon.
Specifically, Big Trouble in Little China involves an American hero treading into a mysterious, non-Western world where he feels like an “outsider.” That world, in this case, is not literally another planet, but rather the mystical and dangerous world of Chinese black magic.
So once more, movie audiences get an on-screen representative of “us” countenancing a strange land and strange customs, but Big Trouble in Little Chinaleverages tremendous humor not only from the peculiarities of this culture clash, but from the rather dramatic presentation of the American hero in question.
To wit, Kurt Russell’s truck-driving, self-important protagonist, Jack Burton, is a swaggering, blundering John Wayne-voiced blow-hard. He’s Jack Blurtin’, so-to-speak.
And yet Jack also reveals (in the words of the screenplay) “great courage” under stress, and his heart is always (well, almost always…) in the right place. I have always maintained that the accident-prone but intrinsically heroic Burton represents director Carpenter’s most positive silver screen depiction of American dominance upon the world stage, especially compared with the perspectives showcased in the dystopian Escape from New York (1981) and the 1980s social critique, They Live (1988).
I also wrote in my book The Films of John Carpenter that “it’s all in the reflexes,” to quote Jack. So Big Trouble in Little China serves as Carpenter’s almost reflexive tribute to the style of Chinese martial arts films. Thus, this is a movie that rests largely on Carpenter’s unimpeachable film-making instincts, his fully-developed directorial muscle or chops. The action sequences — particularly an early one set in a Chinatown alley — represent a visual tour de force. The final battle in the film is one of the most giddy, over-the-top, visually-dynamic set-pieces put to celluloid in the 1980s, and a high point for the fantasy/action genre.
But here’s the big secret in Little China: the film is much more than action too.
What is Big Trouble in Little China, then? Well, the film is one part culture clash, one part genre pastiche and all camp humor. Writing for the Village Voice, Scott Foundas suggested Big Trouble was a “far more enjoyable mash-up of classic Westerns, Saturday-morning serials, and Chinese than any of the Indiana Jones movies, with Kurt Russell in full bloom as Carpenter’s de rigueur hard-drinkin’, hard-gamblin’, wise-crackin’ loner hero—a bowling-alley John Wayne.”
And as critic Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine (“Everything New is Old Again”), Big Trouble in Little China“offers dollops of entertainment, but it is so stocked with canny references to other pictures that it suggests a master’s thesis that moves.”
And boy, how Big Trouble in Little China moves. It never stops moving, in fact.
This is one frenetically-paced spectacular, and the feeling of unfettered delight Carpenter engenders simply from the film’s manic sense of speed is a remarkable thing. One scene near the climax that begins with a close-up of a hammer pounding an alarm bell escalates to such intense velocity that your heart threatens to leap out of your chest. And naturally,the moment ends on a joke. After running a gauntlet of monsters, bullets, and opponents, Jack Burton is nearly undone…by a red traffic light.
Frankly, I’ve never understood why so many critics rejected this film upon its release in the summer of 1986, but as I always argue: don’t bet against John Carpenter in the long-run. Big Trouble in Little China has ably survived the slings and arrows of bad reviews and stood the test of time to emerge one of the most beloved cult movies of the 1980s.
I think this is likely so because of Jack Burton. Other films have been set in distinctive “underworlds,” and many movies have been set against the backdrop of Chinese myth or legend.
But there is only one Jack Burton.
“Everybody relax. I’m here.”
When his friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is unable to re-pay a bet, surly truck driver Jack Burton (Russell) tags along to the airport to pick up Wang’s betrothed, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). Unfortunately, the green-eyed beauty is abducted right out from under the duo by a Chinese gang known as the “Lords of Death.” Miao Yin is then delivered into the custody of an ancient warlord and cursed spirit called Lo Pan (James Hong). Lo Pan believes that if he marries and sacrifices a green-eyed woman, he will be rendered flesh again, after two-thousand years as an insubstantial ghost.
Jack and Wang pursue the gang to Chinatown and become embroiled in an all-out gang war. Jack’s parked truck is stolen from an alleyway, and the theft draws the skeptical American further into the realm of Chinese black magic. Soon, Jack teams-up with an elder sorcerer, Egg Shen (Victor Wong) and a crusading lawyer, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) to stop Lo Pan and recover Wang’s would-be bride and his own ride. This quest takes Jack deep underground, into the Hell of Upside Down Sinners, into Lo-Pan’s secret lair, and into fierce battle with monsters, warriors and ghosts of all shapes and sizes.
“May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.”
As the The Village Voice review notes, Big Trouble in Little China can be interpreted as an example of the Chinese literary and film form known as the Wu xia, or simply “wuxia.”
In stories of this type, a young hero survives and overcomes tragedy in his life, undertakes a heroic quest, and ultimately emerges as a great fighter and an adult, all while maintaining a strict code of honorable behavior. To state the matter broadly, “wuxia” is the Chinese equivalent of the western-based “heroic journey.” It’s a rite-of-passage tale, and one that heavily features a romantic component.
Big Trouble in Little Chinaconforms with many details of the established wuxia formula if and only if the viewer considers Wang Chi the film’s prime hero figure. Wang loses his bride-to-be, undertakes the quest to save her, and becomes – during the course of the film – a real hero. Each time he fights, Wang becomes stronger until, by film’s end, he is actually an equal to Lo Pan’s invincible minions, the Storms.
Of course, the quality that makes Big Trouble in Little China so unusual as wuxia and as action film is that the capable hero – the man on the quest and with all the heroic capabilities – is but a sidekick or second fiddle to the star, the bumbling, accident-prone Burton.
Thus, in some significant but very funny and subversive way, Big Trouble in Little Chinaquestions and teases long-standing Hollywood assumptions that America and Americans must always stand at the center of the cinematic action, and must always play the “hero.” This film suggests there’s another tradition and source of inspiration for cinematic adventure too.
After all, George Lucas raided the film oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa to create Star Wars, so here John Carpenter pays tribute to Eastern-produced martial arts fantasies and their unique style of heroic storytelling.
Again and again, then, Big Trouble in Little China invites us to view our “hero” Burton in distinctly funny and non-traditional terms. He faces the implacable bad guys with bright red lip-stick marring his face, for example. Far from striking fear in the heart of his enemies, Jack’s battle cry actually renders only himself unconscious. At one point, we see Jack miss his intended target with a knife throw, and on several occasions he expresses fear and uncertainty about the creatures and world around him.
In spite of all this, Jack is certainly persistent and loyal and yes, heroic. So you get the feeling that, when held in contrast to the film’s Asian characters, Carpenter’s depiction of Jack charts an intriguing new global dynamic.
Specifically, American might and bravery joins with Asian complexity for a great victory against evil. Jack is a big and strong American, grounded in stereotypical western concepts, whereas the Asians are more introspective and ambivalent. In other words, Jack seems to live on the surface of reality; reality as his (limited) imagination weighs it. This quality enables him to see clearly “right” and “wrong.” By comparison, the Chinese characters dwell in a more ambivalent, complicated self-doubting state; one where modernity requires them to eschew the beliefs they know to be true.
In terms of the film’s characters, the Americans in Big Trouble in Little Chinaare defined basically by what they look like and what they say. Jack is a muscle-bound, athletic truck driver and looks every bit the traditional hero. Gracie Law is a beautiful lawyer and simultaneously a walking parody of the old Hollywood film cliché: the lady crusader. “I’m always poking my nose where it doesn’t belong,” she enthuses at one point, effectively defining her own purpose in the narrative. Both Jack and Gracie boast an exaggerated sense of self-importance too. At one point, Jack blusters into a room and says, flat-out, “Don’t worry, I’m here.”
The Eastern characters, by contrast, seemed defined…differently. On the surface, Egg-Shen appears to be a little old man and bus driver, but in reality he is a powerful sorcerer. Wang Chi is a skinny, diminutive man who works in his uncle’s Chinese restaurant, and yet is actually a warrior of superb skills. The Chinese heroes seem to possess layers of self-awareness, modesty and contradiction that Jack and Gracie do not.
Kurt Russell does a mean John Wayne impersonation as Jack, and that choice underlines the film’s unique approach to heroism. When we think of John Wayne, we think of the idealized American hero, a man from a time when “men were men” and when morality was as plain as black and white. But Jack Burton drives his truck into an alleyway in Chinatown in this film, and all bets are off. Suddenly, he might as well be on another planet, just like Flash Gordon because he’s asked to countenance an ethnically diverse world where all the truths he holds dear about the nature of the universe may no longer apply. Certainty is harder to come by.
If John Wayne had met the moral ambiguity of the late 1970s or 1980s, perhaps he’d be Jack Burton.
The front-and-center placement of the anachronistic John Wayne character in a drama about foreign mythology and spiritual is the very thing that makes Big Trouble in Little Chinamore than just your average adventure film, but rather a commentary on our shifting position in a globalized world. In the 1980s, when it looked like the East (particularly Japan) was rising to eclipse America in terms of innovation and technology, along came Big Trouble in Little China to — with tongue-in-cheek — critique our place in the new world order.
“I’m feeling a little like an outsider here,” says Jack. “You are,” is the reply from the Chinese. But then, as they must readily admit, the Chinese protagonists need Jack. Their destiny rests in his “capable hands.” He is the one they require (with his black and white views of the world?) to bring “order out of chaos.”
Jack has a lot of catching-up to do in the film in terms of understanding Chinese lore and mysticism, but in the final analysis, who ultimately takes out Lo Pan?
When Jack does save the day (because he was born ready, remember), he does so, literally, with time-worn reflexes. Lo Pan tosses a knife at him, and Jack instinctively tosses it back, with fatal results. When Jack states “it’s all in the reflexes”it’s a deliberate comment on America too. Our reflex – our instinct – is to act heroically, even if we don’t always think our way fully through a problem before jumping in. We may have to play catch up, like Jack, but when big trouble rears its head, the world counts on us to do something…and we invariably deliver.
Moving with breathtaking speed and with ample good humor, Big Trouble in Little Chinais much smarter than it tends to get credit for. It takes the long-standing cliché of American Exceptionalism — seen in more straightforward fashion in Flash Gordon — and both questions and re-affirms it for the age of globalism. But if the delightful, one-of-a-kind Jack Burton – warts and all – is an insult to our traditional American images of strength and power as some film scholars insist, then, to quote the great man himself, “Go ahead…insult me.”
Because when the “chips are down,” you can count on Jack Burton.
(Not to mention John Carpenter).