Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Directed by John Carpenter

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Big Trouble in Little China is a combination of Pirates of the CaribbeanIndiana JonesHarry Potter and racism.  Or maybe it’s not racist, it’s hard to say.  The whole film is so incredibly over the top and ludicrous that it’s hard to tell to what degree this film is a parody of itself.

Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is an opinionated, stubborn American truck driver who finds himself involved in a centuries-old Chinese mystery in the heart of Chinatown in San Francisco.  The film works remarkably quickly, drawing Burton and his friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), and it’s easy to find yourself lost in the lore presented to you as well as the multitude of violent street gangs, magic and the overall criminal underworld of Chinatown.

In one instance, Wang tells Jack about the love of his life, whom they are on their way to pick up from the airport, but almost immediately a scuffle takes place in which three masked men, part of a notorious Chinese street gang, kidnap her, and suddenly we’re off.  From there, Jack and Wang watch as a civil war type of battle takes place in the cramped streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown while they watch from Jack’s large truck.  The whole thing feels like a video game cut scene.  The two opposing sides line up for battle as Wang Chi tells Jack who they are and what’s going down.  Then I kept expecting the movie to stop rolling as a title card popped up onscreen saying “Now it’s your turn,” and suddenly you’re Jack, trying to fight your way out.

The film feels so incredibly lame, I suppose, because I kept thinking that this was being handled with some sense of seriousness, and that’s when it feels a little racially insensitive.  Almost everything about the movie’s version of Chinese culture is presented as exotic and far out.  We need all American hero Kurt Russell to be our eyes and ears.  He’s just as confused as we are.

But the story is so completely insane that it felt incredibly condescending and reductive to say, basically, ‘here is this small community of Chinese culture in an American city and no, they’re not just hardworking people doing their best to get by like all of us, instead they are killing each other in the streets and working in service of an undead god’ or something like that.  When Jack Burton is flabbergasted, so are we, and it felt too much like white people nudging each other, saying ‘isn’t this weird?’  And yeah, it’s weird, but is the feeling meant to be that this particular subset of this culture is weird?  Like there is an equally weird subset of White Christian American culture?  The feeling I got was that this ‘weirdness’ was meant to represent how many white people see all of Chinese culture.  That’s where it felt reductive and condescending, as if Kurt Russell is the only voice of reason in this story because… he’s Kurt Goddamned Russell.

But somewhere along the way, the movie started to make fun of itself and its hero.  Kurt Russell, at first, is a macho badass.  We know this not just because he’s Kurt Russell, but also because he’s Snake Plissken from John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981).  Plissken is an unapologetic badass, and sure it’s a little funny now, but in that movie there is nothing funny about him, he’s just a macho, take no names, one-eyed, muscular hero.

So Carpenter plays off of that image of Russell that he helped cultivate, but now he throws him into this insane plot involving magic, assassins, gangs, etc.  Over halfway into the movie, Carpenter starts to make fun of Russell’s Jack Burton a little bit.  In one fight scene, Burton prepares to lead the charge into battle, but he fires a few gunshots above him into the ceiling, knocking loose a series of rocks that promptly hit him in the head, knocking him unconscious.  The rest of the battle takes place mostly while Burton lies on the ground.

There are several other moments like this which undercut Burton’s heroism.  In many cases he’s not so skilled as he is lucky.  We repeatedly see him get knocked on his ass or beaten up, though it’s not like the wounds show up on his body.  The point is really to make Burton come across as powerless, and that’s where the comedy shows up, and that’s where the movie starts to have a little more fun.

But did I miss something in the beginning?  The first half of the movie never felt fun while the second half did.  It’s like Carpenter directed the first half of the movie exclusively during the hours of 4 to 9 am, when everyone is sleepy and tired and still waking up.  Then it’s like he directed the second half of the film during the hours of 8 pm to 2 am, when everyone is loose, perhaps a little drunk and certainly a little loopy.  The tones of each half of the film just felt so different.

There is plenty of action in both halves of the film, though it never felt that entertaining or dramatic.  I never felt like the action was meant to be tense, but I have to imagine it intended to be fun and entertaining.  In a lot of 80s movies like this (I suppose it’s not just 80s movies), it often feels like you can really see and feel the paper mache quality of the film set.  Characters are thrown through walls and windows, which break away like cardboard.

And compare that to this…

I couldn’t find a perfect example, so I chose a scene from Raging Bull because it shows consequences to the violence.  When a character is hit, he bleeds or his eye swells.

In Big Trouble in Little China, the fighting feels so choreographed (because it is), like a dance scene.  And sure, action is choreographed in movies like that, but it never felt as fun as it wanted to be, and it sure as hell didn’t feel dramatic or tense.

So the result is something of a lukewarm movie, at least for me.  It embraces its own absurdity halfway through the runtime, but there’s a lot of sitting and waiting for something to happen, and despite the ‘fun,’ nothing ever really does happen.

Still, maybe it’s good to watch movies like these to get a sense of what an 80s action star looked like and represented.  Jack Burton is a trucker, not exactly a glamorous job and one that is probably underrepresented in film, and he has a very fashionable, for the time, mullet.  This character must’ve appealed to a certain audience predominantly between the coasts, but he’s ultimately made to look like a fool for most of the second half of the film.  Does that mean anything?  I don’t know.  Maybe Carpenter had a point here, but if he wanted to deconstruct Kurt Russell’s movie persona, he must have been reacting against his own work since he helped create that persona (from what I can tell).  So maybe, just maybe, this is an exercise in building and taking down celebrity and showing the seams at the edge of the process.  Celebrity is a constructed concept, one we make and one we choose to glorify, so perhaps this is all a part of a performance art piece, kind of like how the Coen Brothers constantly make George Clooney play doofus characters in their films, turning him from this guy:

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…into these guys:

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