Saturday, January 23, 2010

Carpenter's Tools: Big Trouble in Little China

By the time John Carpenter made Big Trouble in Little China, the most successful independent filmmaker of all time had since acclimated into the studio system, and he never inflated his budgets to anything more significant than a fraction of what his fellow New Hollywood practitioners poured into their films, much less the filmmakers who'd since adopted the blockbuster spectacles reflective of '80s mainstream filmmaking. Yet his returns began to diminish as his budgets crawled upward, with the considerable success of Escape from New York giving way to The Thing and Starman, two of Carpenter's best-received films that nevertheless barely earned back their budgets. Big Trouble finally tipped the scales: working with his biggest budget to date (only about a million more than Starman), it earned approximately half its $25 million price tag in the States and Carpenter, soured by the studio's mismanagement and mis-marketing of the film, spent the next few years returning to more independent filmmaking.

As badly as 20th Century Fox might have bungled the marketing, Big Trouble lives on in cult superstardom, along with the rest of Carpenter's canon. It marked the final collaboration between Carpenter and Kurt Russell of the '80s, and indeed the film serves as a rough bricolage of their previous efforts: it contains the satirical broad strokes of Escape from New York, the innovative (and remarkably cheap) special effects work of The Thing, even the casting of Russell as an American icon in Elvis. For, while he plays fictional character Jack Burton, big rig driver extraordinaire, Russell is unabashedly, shamelessly portraying John Wayne.

As such, he adds a cheeky layer to what some dismissed as a simplistic homage to kung-fu B-pictures: Jack Burton is the ludicrous embodiment of that vaguely defined demographic collectively titled "Middle America" -- a working class master of his own morality who peddles the sort of shitkicker's wisdom that has been established as some sort of foil for "East Coast elitism" -- and his actions against the hordes of Asian characters who challenge him reflect our own disturbing predilection for tearing through swaths of non-white populations. He gets into scrapes without thinking it through -- or about it at all -- and maintains his arrogance no matter how many times he is shown to be a complete moron.

As Carpenter and Russell note in their uproarious commentary track -- one of the funniest you'll ever hear -- Jack is the hero, yet he only performs one identifiably heroic action in the entire film. He cares almost exclusively for his truck, stolen by the gang of the mysterious Lo Pan (James Wong), a staple of Chinese folklore, who also snatches the fiancée of Jack's affable, quick-witted Sino-American chum Wang (Dennis Dun). But it's all about the truck. He eventually warms to Gracie (Kim Cattrall), every bit as arbitrary to the film's narrative as the protagonist.

The actors all understand that Carpenter isn't treating any of this with any severity, and if Big Trouble in Little China treads in stereotypes, at least the people who play them embrace them fully. Cattrall plays the literally breathless ingénue, delivering every line as if she'd just sprinted three miles, while Dun provides a capable foil for the thickheaded Jack. In fact, the Asian actors appear to be having as much fun as Carpenter and Russell: they clearly grew up with the same kung-fu movies, and they take to their parts with aplomb. Russell, of course, is brilliant as the hapless goof Jack, so cocksure and so very wrong at every step. One of my all-time favorite line deliveries of any film involves him preparing to lead his motley crew to an escape, opening a door to reveal an army of Lo Pan's followers, slamming it and deadpanning, "We may be trapped."

The real draw here are the effects and the cheesy-yet-impressive use of wire works and martial arts, a sort of camp ancestor to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Fighters leap about the screen, while good guys (chiefly Victor Wong) and baddies lob magic bombs and lightning and each other. Compared to the drab nightmares of his previous horror/action/fantasy pictures, Big Trouble is bright and shiny, filled with golden statues, rich costumes, neon lights and green flame. Starman showed Carpenter finally getting to branch out after Halloween altered his plans to follow in Hawks' journeyman footsteps, but, where Big Trouble takes him back to familiar ground, it features some of his most exciting direction. The camera still doesn't move a great deal, but it cuts with precision, quick without losing spatial relationships and peppered with instant pans to follow the coiled spring movements of the characters.

For many, Big Trouble in Little China stands as Carpenter's last outright classic, though They Live receives much love as well. For all of Carpenter's economical shots, you, as Russell rightly notes in the commentary, can always spot one of his films with only a few scenes. Big Trouble is chock full of action and effects, and it barely scratches the surface of any character, yet it always maintains a sense of place and time; never mind that each set is loopier than the last. Yet his graceful movements are somehow more viscerally enjoyable than most of the glorified music videos that pass for action movies these days: we may not care about these characters, but the simple act of being able to track them for more than 1.4 seconds at a time gives us more of a connection than all the phony empathy blasted at us in flashes. It may not be great, nor even brush against greatness, but you'll have to search long and far to find a better film to pass a lazy Sunday or entertain a group of buds than this oddball trip to Chinatown.


  1. The John Carpenter renaissance is fascinating and inspiring to behold. I've actually never seen "Big Trouble in Little China" (which got terrible reviews) but I did just see a few nights ago (for the first time in years) "The Thing," which was unsettling enough to give me nightmares the night after I watched it. This one sounds more lighthearted. Will have to queue it up.

  2. I've been surprised at how much I've loved almost every Carpenter film I've watched so far (though I'm right at the cusp of his supposed slide into mediocrity and irrelevance). Assault on Precinct 13 lacks all of the intellectual depth underneath Rio Bravo, but as a no-budget action flick update it's aces, while The Thing and Halloween are two of the most immaculately constructed horror films ever (though I can't claim to be an expert because I'm a cowardly moviegoer and only watch horrors by the greats). This and Escape From New York are deliriously fun and broadly wicked action/fantasy numbers, and Starman is surprisingly touching despite lines that would absolutely have failed had the actors and/or director been different (only Carpenter can make his scripts work, as evidenced by Halloween II).

    But yeah, this one isn't scary at all, just perfect rainy day kitsch.

  3. Nice piece on what is probably my fave Carpenter film of all time. While I don't think it is as great as say, THE THING (which is probably his masterpiece), I find myself watching BIG TROUBLE more times. A few minor points. You write:

    "The Thing and Starman, two of Carpenter's best-received films that nevertheless barely earned back their budgets."

    Do you mean best-received at the time? Because THE THING was infamously crucified by most mainstream film critics back in the day and has only, over time, since enjoyed a critical re-appraisal. But you're right, STARMAN was a critical darling when it came out.

    You also mentioned:

    "It marked the final collaboration between Carpenter and Kurt Russell"

    Not true. They went on to make ESCAPE FROM LA, which is dumb fun but pretty forgettable.

    That being said, the collaboration between Carpenter and Russell can't be appreciated enough as these guys have done some of their best work together. They seem to really be simpatico and I hope that some day they do at least one more film together.

    What I love about BIG TROUBLE is how to constantly plays around with our expectations for a big budget action film. The hero is actually the sidekick and the sidekick is actually the hero. The guy doesn't get the girl at the end. Etc.

    Not to mention the film is insanely quotable which is one of the big reasons why it is such the beloved cult film.

  4. Oh crap, how could I forget Escape from L.A. (in any other situation, that would be a huge positive) Editing now.

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