Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1986)

11. Big Trouble in Little China

“Big Trouble in Little China” is a true cult classic. Soundly rejected by the public upon release, it has since built up a huge fan following. Many Carpenter fans consider it their favorite movie. The movie’s box office failure shouldn’t have come as any surprise. Even in today’s market, where low-genre homages are a cottage industry and produced some big hits, an oddball comedy take on Hong Kong kung-fu/fantasy flicks would probably be a dicey proposition. With “Big Trouble in Little China,” Carpenter let his wacky side out for the first time since “Dark Star.”

Conceived as a western that somehow became a homage to the wilder Hong Kong kung-fu films of the sixties and seventies, “Big Trouble in Little China” owes a debt to both genres. Like in a western, the lone hero rides into town and finds an adventure. In a modernized move, the hero is a trucker, though still very much a cowboy in attitude. San Francisco’s Chinatown makes for a colorful setting. Pretty quickly a plot involving a kidnapped girl, an immortal sorcerer, and Chinatown’s criminal and magical underground follows, with all the magic, monsters, gun play, and kung-fu fighting that implies.

With tongue always firmly planted in cheek, the plot slowly ups the ridiculousness. At first, Jack Burton’s comic faux-machoness is the only indication. Soon, Chinese gangsters in leather jackets, sunglasses, and bandanas show up, along with a strong single female lawyer. A car chase dead ends in an alley way and a gangland gun fight follows. That would be enough for most action movies but this one is just getting started. Three super powered Chinese supervillains quite literally fall out of the sky, massacre both sides, and we get a glimpse at the movie’s main villain. We’re off. The story only gets wilder as it progresses. With every descent deeper into the ground, more oddities are revealed. The story is actually fairly straight-forward once you strip away all the hoodoo but there’s enough room to make the accusation of plot holes. The movie barrels along, not really noticing or caring if every little detail doesn’t perfectly line up. It’s too energetic to be sloppy and lends an exciting edge were anything can happen.

Perhaps the film’s best attribute is its protagonist. Jack Burton is, in the simplest of terms, fucking awesome. He takes the cowboy shtick Kurt Russell trotted out as Snake and turns it on its head. Jack Burton is a blowhard and kind of an idiot, prone to making wide, sweeping, vaguely metaphoric statements that make little actual sense.

He sees himself as the hero of the film. He’s not. This is hinted at when he’s rambling “You know what ol’ Jack Burton says?” statements are met with confusion and bewilderment. It becomes obvious in a few of the sequences where Burton’s over-the-top attempts at heroics go awry. He grabs a knife out of his boot but accidentally tosses it across the room. By the time he’s retrieved it, his hyper-confident partner has dispatched all the bad guys. Shooting a machine gun into the air willy-nilly turns out not to be a smart idea. Jack spends almost the entire climatic battle pinned underneath the dead body of a big guard. The main joke of the story is that Jack thinks he’s the hero when he’s actually the comic-relief sidekick. High-kicking buddy Wang is the real badass. While this could have potentially been annoying, Russell’s comedic timing and natural charm makes Burton wholly endearing. The script doles out enough moments of actual competence to keep Jack from being a total loser, even if he’s still an idiot. It’s the kind of role only the exclusive few like Russell or Bruce Campbell could pull off and remains the actor’s best part.

Any of Jack Burton’s potentially aggravating characteristic are further reduced by the fact that this is an ensemble film. The cast is top lined by two of the most memorable Chinese-American character actors. James Hong as Lo Pan is awesome. When playing a Fu Manchu-like undead evil wizard, most would expect a fairly serious, intimidating performance. Hong plays it for comedy. Lo Pan is a smart-ass, thoroughly modern wizard. Perhaps this was unavoidable, since Hong’s distinctive voice has an inherently humorous quality to it. Either way, Lo Pan is just as memorable and entertaining a character as Jack Burton is. For further points, Hong has no problem acting under either of the heavy make-ups the part puts him in.

Victor Wong, though frequently cast in serious roles like “The Last Emperor,” was a gifted comedic actor. His oddball looks and ability to gift even the most mythology-laden lines with a sarcastic sense of humor puts him at the film’s forefront. Dennis Dun’s character of Wang Chi seems to have been inspired by Jackie Chan, if his acrobatics and way with a one-liner is any indication. Of course, Dun is nowhere near the martial artist Chan is but the film makes it work anyway. Kim Cartrell, whom I normally don’t like, shows a good sense of humor. She makes her character more then a damsel in distress anyway. (Which is more then we can say for Suzee Pai as Wang’s defenseless love interest.)

While none of the actors playing the Three Storms have much to do from a thespian perspective, all three are pretty awesome. Carter Wong is probably the one who does the most acting. Check out those angry faces during the mostly inexplicable sword dance sequence. Lightening is definitely the coolest though, floating around and tossing electrical bursts, and would blatantly inspire Raiden from “Mortal Kombat.” The most I can say about Peter Wong as Rain is that he looks a lot like David Chiang and somehow doesn’t look ridiculous flying through the air on wires. It’s fair to say the cast is maybe a little too big, since Kate Burton’s nervous news reporter and Donald Li’s laidback Eddie Lee get something of the shaft, but both characters are still very amusing even with their lack of screen time.

The movie is immensely funny, mostly due to the performances and the quick-witted dialogue. My favorite moment is, after the heroes take an invincibility potion. Most movies would cut directly to the battle. Instead, “Big Trouble” takes the time to show the characters' hilarious small-talk banter as they ride down the elevator towards battle. That scene gets me every time. A good reoccurring gag revolves around repeated mention of all the different Chinese Hells, which pays off nicely when Dun messes with Jack over the writing on a door.

Despite its comedic elements, the film is still quite effective as an action movie. There’s a number of thrilling sequences, such Wang cutting loose on the goons in the pottery room, or Jack tittering over a pit in a wheelchair. That wonderfully creative wacky streak leads to so many great moments in the last act. There’s a bunch of weird ass monsters that appear, like a long-armed red-haired ape monster, a giant fish creature leaping from walls, or, best yet, the floating eyeball monster. That final battle is when the action kicks into high gear. Victor Wong banishes scores of enemies with magical grenades before having a psychic beam-o-war fingernail magic battle with Lo Pan. Meanwhile, Wang sails through the air like a Shaw Bros. hero.

Not to mention the fantastic, horror-meets-neon-lights-Chinese-buffet set design. Which do I like better? The giant skull escalator? The multi-armed Buddha elevator? The black blood of the Earth? It’s all so good. You can’t really call the intentionally campy aspect ironic, since John Carpenter and his crew are fully enjoying themselves.

All the energy and off-beat humor present in the film shouldn’t come as a surprise once you realize W. D. Richter, the same guy who brought us “The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension,” was heavily involved in the scripting. Like that film, “Big Trouble in Little China” was too joyously weird to be anything but a box office bomb. It was destined for home video cult classic status more or less immediately. All of this is a shame since a sequel could have been incredible. In the unlikely chance that a big-shot producer type is reading this, I’ve had an outline for one called “Return of the Pork Chop Express” on my hard drive for a while now. Sit back, listen to the awesomely silly theme song, and wonder what might have been. [Grade: A-]

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