Skip to main content

I’m a reasonable guy. But I’ve just experienced some unreasonable things.

Big Trouble in Little China
(1986)

(SPOILERS) Much as I like 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 the picture, since it intentionally plays off the Fu Manchu archetype. Certainly, this charge has been levelled at Big Trouble in Little China, 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?
Thunder: Who?
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, but in the intervening 12 years, the likes of Joe Dante and Terry Gilliam and Sam Raimi – 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 that one flash of hero-play was probably the only low-lying fruit the studio could clutch hold of – were inhabiting the post-modern realm far more conspicuously.


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% ‘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 to just 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, from the exploding Rain (Peter Kwong), to the eyeball drone (“What the hell is that?”), to Lo Pan’s translucent skin, to 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?

With Star Man, Carpenter had redeemed self in the eyes of studio heads, 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), while 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!





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.