Director: John Carpenter
By Roderick Heath
In contemplating what film I would make the subject of my first commentary of 2011, I went through some familiar refrains. How about some soaring work of famous and ambitious filmmaking? Or how about one of the more notable 2010 films I hadn’t gotten around to writing about?
And then I thought: stuff it, I’ll write about Big Trouble in Little China, and make myself happy.
Few works of ’80s commercial cinema still seem as fresh as John Carpenter’s ninth feature, a rowdy, rocking hunk of fun that both fulfils and subverts all ideals of action filmmaking. Big Trouble has been described as ahead of its time, in that it anticipated, and still outclasses, the great wave of Asian-Hollywood fusion flicks that took over action cinema from the mid ’90s on, represented by The Matrix, Kill Bill, the American starring vehicles of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li, and sundry others martial-arts-infused movies. But in other, fundamental ways, it’s still unique. It was, in its own moment, a painful flop that effectively ended Carpenter’s rise up the rungs of Hollywood, in spite of it being his most stylistically confident and technically accomplished film; his next work, Prince of Darkness (1987), was a virtual bargain-basement affair. The reasons for Big Trouble’s failure are now practically lost in the mist of time, but its cult status today is impossible to deny. Now that Carpenter’s reemerging with the upcoming The Ward as vanguard of a slate of new projects, and Big Trouble is racking up its quarter-century, it’s a good time to take a fond look back.
Carpenter’s career up until that point had been one of the most inspired of all the American directors to emerge in the ’70s. His debut film Dark Star (1974), expanded from a film school short and made on budget that couldn’t afford a spare shoestring, gained him notice. His colossal independent hit Halloween (1978), for better and for worse, redefined the horror genre. His greatest film, The Thing (1982), a bleakly brilliant remake of a seminal scifi movie, was controversial and perceived as a failure, but he bounced back with the popular Starman (1984). On Big Trouble’s DVD commentary track, Carpenter and star Kurt Russell recall with some hilarity how in the excited lead-up to the film’s release, the trade press asked, “How does it feel to know you’ve made the biggest film of the year?” That turned out a little inaccurate. Carpenter had begun in films hoping to make Westerns, but that genre was already in terminal decline. Horse opera flourishes still riddle virtually all his films, and Big Trouble in Little China was initially written as a Western. But the finished script was transposed to a contemporary locale. Inspired by specific Asian models like A Chinese Ghost Story, Swords of Fame, and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Carpenter also honoured Albert Zugsmith’s brilliantly weird Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), with the heroine of Zugsmith’s film, June Kyoto Lu, appearing here as a brothel madam. The screenplay by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein was rewritten by W. D. Richter, who had previously tried to put over his oddball ideal of tongue-in-cheek adventure with his equally cultish, equally unsuccessful The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984). And yet the result is Carpenter through and through.
A decade after Chinatown used the titular locale as shorthand for all that’s impenetrable and anti-democratic in American life, Big Trouble tried to use Little China as a place where the cultures of East and West could blend, and Carpenter brought his deep knowledge and love of martial arts films to invest the film with a flavour simultaneously loving and glib. Interestingly, too, as I’ve come back to take another look at Carpenter’s maligned later works, I’ve noticed more and more how the self-mocking flavour of Big Trouble infuses them, if essayed in some clumsier ways. The mix of high-tensile formal control, nuts-and-bolts honesty, and subversive, often dark-hued humour that had marked out Carpenter as a director of low-budget fare presented problems in being translated into ’80s big-budget Hollywood. His handmade sensibility betrays itself in its soundtrack. Whereas other blockbusters of the time would have soundtrack songs by Prince or Bon Jovi, presaging our era in which “soundtracks” are released featuring songs not even used in the films they’re supposed to be associated with, in egregious marketing cons, Big Trouble has a groovy, goofy theme performed by the Coupe De Villes, the band Carpenter and his longtime friends and collaborators Tommy Lee Wallace and Nick Castle put together.
Big Trouble’s cheeky take on the genre template commences with the fact that Jack Burton, the hero Kurt Russell plays, isn’t really the hero at all. He’s a tough-talking truck driver, fond of broadcasting his personal mythology over the CB radio and coming on like John Wayne’s bastard son, but he’s not too far from the kinds of character Bob Hope and Don Adams played, a posturing clot with occasional moments of competence—a poke in the eye for what was then the cult of greased-up machismo represented by Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Jack is friend and veritable sidekick to Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), whose physical prowess as a brilliant martial artist and motivation to snatch back his true love from the forces of evil clearly mark him as the real protagonist.
Carpenter and Russell had previously worked together on the telemovie Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981), and The Thing, but Big Trouble was the true high point of that collaboration, at least in terms of the director’s intent and the actor’s capacities meshing. Few other young male movie stars have ever betrayed such a willingness to send themselves up as Russell did here. For example, Burton answers the question “Are you ready?” when venturing into any enemy lair with a swaggering “I was born ready!” Once there, however, he drops weapons, can’t work out how to let go of an opponent he’s holding prone, and looks momentarily shocked when he shoots someone, giving away his essential lack of experience as a tough guy.
Another thing that marked Carpenter out as a filmmaker, but which made him seem increasingly out of place in modern Hollywood, is his care in evoking a sense of milieu and situating his heroes as a part of an ordinary world. Often, they’re blue collar dudes and ladies, included by accident in greater machinations. Big Trouble commences with an opening that gives a fine sense of Burton as both a bit of a blowhard, ranting on the radio before cramming a giant hoagie in his mouth, but also as a cool guy. After delivering a load of produce to a market in San Francisco, he sits down to gamble with the mostly Asian porters and buyers, including his old friend Wang Chi, a self-made restaurateur. Carpenter doesn’t need a word of dialogue to show us who Burton, Wang, and the rest are: normal people doing real things and relaxing in a normal way, the sort of things nobody does in modern action blockbusters except in the most laboriously signposted fashions. The only remarkable moment is a challenge between Wang and Jack. Wang, who’s just lost all the money he’d saved up for a lavish welcome back from China for his fiancée, bets Jack double or nothing he can split a beer bottle in half with a meat cleaver. He fails, and Jack catches the bottle, which shoots across the table at him, proving he has brilliant reflexes. That’s a classic piece of establishing a hero’s gifts, but it’s a promise the film deliberately, hilariously delays fulfilling.
Jack recompenses Wang by taking him to pick up said fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), from the airport, where Jack eyes Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), a civil rights lawyer. She’s trying to shepherd immigrant Tara (Min Luong) safely past a waiting coterie of thugs from a Chinatown street gang on the lookout for girls to kidnap and force into prostitution. When the goons snatch Tara, Jack confronts them, only to be quickly toppled; the thugs take Miao Yin instead. Jack and Wang chase them to Chinatown, where they’re caught in the middle of a battle between the evil Wing Kong triad, and the good-guy Chang Sing gang, who are having the funeral procession for a leader and are ambushed by their enemies. The Chang Sing’s retaliation proves effective until the intervention of the Three Storms—Thunder (Carter Wong), Lightning (James Pax), and Rain (Peter Kwong)—bizarre beings that seem to have supernatural powers. The Storms slaughter the Chang Sings where they stand. When Jack tries to escape this melee by driving his truck through it, he seems to run down a tall, regally dressed man whom Wang thinks might be David Lo Pan (James Hong), the legendary head of the Wing Kong. Lo Pan seems unhurt by Jack’s truck, and rays of blinding light shoot from his eyes and mouth.
Jack soon learns that he and Wang have stumbled into the middle of a metaphysical battle of good and evil. Working with Gracie, whose knowledge of Chinatown’s criminal dealings is great, Jack infiltrates the White Tiger, a brothel where sex slaves are bought and sold, to find Miao Yin. Unfortunately, she’s snatched away by the Three Storms and taken to the underground lair of Lo Pan. He proves to be a 2,000-year-old soldier and magician, cursed by the gods for his offences, who is really a fleshless spirit desperately in search of a girl with green eyes he can marry to end his curse. Miao Yin fits the bill. Jack and Wang’s efforts to find her in Lo Pan’s headquarters prove a comic disaster until they manage to escape and free a number of captive women. But Gracie is left in the hands of Lo Pan and when he proves that both she and Miao Yin can survive the rituals for testing his brides, he plans to marry both, sacrificing one and keeping the other to be his companion as he conquers the universe. Wang and Jack are aided in their quest by Gracie’s journalist friend Margo Lane (Kate Burton), Wang’s debonair maitre d’ Eddie (Donald Li), the Chang Sings, and general-purpose sorcerer and tour guide Egg Shen (Victor Wong).
The quality of Big Trouble that sets it apart from many similar ’80s films and makes it tantalisingly hard to describe is the fluent ease with which it shifts between genres and tones: a giddy succession of swerves from slapstick to melodrama; Howard Hawksian verbal byplay; Tsui Hark wire-fu shenanigans; comic book hoot; resonant, sexually and mystically mysterious epic. Carpenter’s shift into action-oriented fare after mostly making horror movies, in which control of mood, atmosphere, and story progression are key assets, saw him assay Big Trouble with a contiguous grace that eludes most physically dynamic movies where a motion rush becomes paramount. Big Trouble’s atmosphere is tangible, as the heroes perform the gleeful boyish fantasy of taking a turn down just the right side street and being plunged into an adventure. When I was very young, I used to live within a stone’s throw of Sydney’s Chinatown and the old markets close by, and the visual pentimento of that area is one Carpenter’s film reproduces in a fashion that stokes an intense nostalgia in me.
The heroes enter an urban landscape of old tangled buildings that’s wreathed in mist and rain and decorated by the perfervid colours of Chinese restaurant neon and gilt. Cinematographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter’s collaborator since Halloween, bathes the film in lustrous hues. Carpenter’s remarkably illustrative style was at a peak, full of gloriously animated tracking shots that outlay physical context and unity of action with balletic, yet simple intricacy. For example, Jack and Wang run off from Lo Pan on the street and thread their way through back alleys, dodging villains, only to end up back where they started, all without a cut. Later on in the film when the heroes are escaping, Cundey’s steadicam pursues them out through a veritable maze of rooms and doors in their drive back toward the real world at breakneck speed, their rush to freedom made a truly, physically imperative act.
General audiences have often tended to be uneasy when action movies move too much toward the comedic—witness the way Sam Raimi and Steven Spielberg had new ones torn for them for making the later Spider-Man and Indiana Jones entries too funny. Big Trouble’s blending of farce and fury took studio execs by surprise and the 20th Century Fox chief demanded that a more portentous prologue be attached to the film to make Jack, in particular, seem more worthy (though that prologue’s a great little bit in itself). The often deliriously funny vignettes revolve around gags that push to outer edges of mockery, like that in which Jack advises his fellows in escaping the lair, “Follow the leader,” only to pull back a door and be confronted with a gang of enemies, forcing Jack to close the door again and amend his instructions. Or when, with gun jammed and his knife fumbled, Jack has to retreat from a brawl, then returns with a swashbuckling yell only to find Wang’s lain waste to the enemy horde. Or, at the cusp of the great final battle, Jack fires his gun in the air in a warlike moment of exaltation only to have masonry fall on his head and knock him unconscious. Or when he kisses Gracie and then confronts Lo Pan and Thunder with a mouth smeared in her lipstick. But there’s also action that’s simultaneously hilarious and brilliant, like the lengthy duel Wang has with Rain, punctuated by the eyebrow-waggle Wang gives in taunting Rain, who’s amazed at his mortal opponent’s abilities under the influence of Egg Shen’s magic potion.
Under the surface effervescence, another strength of Big Trouble is that unlike most subsequent fantasy and East-West fusions, Carpenter captures, and even builds upon, the mystical weirdness that infuses much wu xia filmmaking. This is clear in images like Lo Pan transforming from his flaccid old guise into young ghost and passing through walls, and when Jack and the Chang Sing warriors follow Egg Shen down a fire pole into a subterranean shadow world where monsters lurk and the “black blood of the Earth” flows. The references to Chinese mythology alternate wryness with wistful seriousness, and Carpenter’s music score communicates a spacey, almost haunting underpinning to the adventure – the fact that many Hong Kong films of the same period sported synthesizer-dominated scores like Carpenter’s increases the likeness. There’s an erotic edge to Lo Pan’s fleshless lusts, and the ritual he performs to test Miao Yin and Gracie possesses a dreamily sexual vibe, communicated by slow motion and the ritualised cavorting of Lo Pan’s magical minions, as the women are lulled into a rigid trance by the exercises of Thunder and Rain before proving their mettle. They are stripped of their sight and identity, reduced essentially to dolls so that Lo Pan can marry them. None of this dominates the film’s giddy tone, of course, but it does flesh out the drama and give it the right tint of strangeness.
The notion that the spooky stories we hear as kids conceal something true and intangibly threatening, exemplified in Halloween and The Fog, reappears here for Wang, whose alpha immigrant success story is built on half-suppressed belief in childhood spook stories that retain a powerful potency, standing in contrast to Jack’s self-dramatising. When the relevance of those stories suddenly asserts itself, Wang is pinioned somewhere between the modern and ancient worlds, cultural identity and self-definition. Jack’s being out of his depth in a world he barely comprehends is continually reiterated. Carpenter, both a celebrator of old-fashioned American toughness and individualism, but also a cunning, left-wing satirist, makes a constant meal of Jack’s queasy declamation which brings Reaganite pomposity squarely to mind. Jack, the big-talking white man, squares off against the innately cool poise of the Chinese-Americans he falls in with. Inevitably, when he is confronted by a mob of Chang Sings and asks whether “any of them savvy English,” one tough looks at Wang and asks in contempt, “Hey man, who is this guy?” This sparks a competitiveness of manliness that sees one of the Chang Sings biting off the head of a raw fish and offering some to Jack, who responds, oh so calmly, “Later.” Even Lo Pan, in spite of his age and seclusion, has an assured grasp of contemporary street argot (“Now this really pisses me off to no end!”). Jack, on the other hand, is no better off than Margo, whose comment, “I must just be so monumentally naïve!” as a self-aware pathetic liberal, is swiftly confirmed by Eddie. But Jack does have his fine moments, such as when he springs the captive women from their cages, and when he performs what is virtually ritualistic for pulp heroes (compare with similar moments for Bogart in The Big Sleep and Ford in Blade Runner) when they put on an act to investigate. Jack presents himself as a gruesome caricature of a Midwestern milquetoast would-be swinger, introducing himself at the White Tiger: “Hello ma’am. Henry Swanson’s my name, and excitement’s my game!”
If Big Trouble had been made now, then Dun’s terrific, energetic and witty performance might have stood a chance of making him a star. Cattrall’s then-fledgling career was both hurt by the flop, but given one of its best moments. It’s hideous to think of the spectacle of her in the grotesque Sex and the City franchise after having grown up with her smoking-hot, garrulous performance here as Gracie, whose rapid-fire channelling of Lois Lane and Rosalind Russell links the movie most thoroughly to pulp of times past. Just as good is Victor Wong’s Egg Shen, who fills the role of an Obi Wan sensei, but whose style and persona skips right past all the niceties, to Jack’s increasingly sarcastic, appalled edification. He waves a “six-demon bag!” full of “wind, fire, stuff like that!” and pours out a steaming magic potion that will allow the good warriors to fight on a par with the magical beings: “You can see things no-one else can see, do things no-one else can do!” First glimpsed driving his tour bus, which Jack nearly runs off the road, Egg seems a comic caricature at first, but proves to be the destined nemesis of Lo Pan, engaging in a nuttily brilliant duel of conjured spirits when they confront each other in the final battle. Wong, who barely had any acting work for years before being cast in Wayne Wang’s Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) and then rising to attention in this film, was a born scene-stealing comic actor.
James Hong as Lo Pan is an evergreen surprise. Generally known for playing gaunt, cagey ciphers, a la his role as the guardian of dark secrets in Chinatown, Hong presents Lo Pan as alternately the dirtiest of old men when he’s in his corporeal shell of withered leathery flesh, swearing and teasing Gracie with insidious delight, and a weirdly beautiful supernatural master in his classical garb and make-up, appealing to the unconscious Miao Yin with poetic cadence and quivering with frustrated desire. Such flourishes makes Lo Pan a far deeper kind of villain than the usual run, and Hong’s intuitively perfect performance struck such a deep chord with the actor that he directed a film, The Vineyard (1989), that reiterates aspects of this film’s plot. Lo Pan gets his comeuppance, eventually, but that’s really the throwaway end to a grandiose fight. Carpenter even makes fun of the usually epic deaths of supernatural villains by having Lo Pan succumb to the simplest of implements,with his great collection of plaster buddhas spontaneously collapsing like dominos, as if the gods are marking the passing of a great if evil force. Carpenter’s filming of the preceding fight is a source of constant delight to me, with a comic-book-like clarity of action displayed in the way Carpenter offers frames that are cut in half by swords or criss-crossed by battling opponents swooping from one edge to the other. Such stylistic rigour, light years away from the happenstance gibberish seen in so many recent action films, gives a sense of the physical space, combined with the rapidity of the editing and the dynamism of the stuntmen, in what is still a master class for this sort of thing. Whatever Big Trouble’s failures as a revenue earner, it was a big triumph as entertainment, and I still love it.