Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Howard Hawks in Chinatown: John Carpenter's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

[Originally published, in modified form, at the now-defunct Cinespect.com.]

John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China should have been a hit. Released in early July of 1986, all it had to do was dethrone The Karate Kid Part II,the biggest movie in America at the end of June. How hard could that have been, especially for a movie as grand as Carpenter's loony action-comedy? It’s practically the platonic ideal of a summer action movie. Breathlessly paced, casually weird, intelligently stoopid, and very funny, the movie does everything right. In outline, it sounds like a brilliantly calculated amalgam of just about every hit movie of the 1980s—the ersatz-Orientalist fantasy of Raider of the Lost Ark (1981), the supernatural smart-ass comedy of Ghostbusters (1984), the gun-toting working man bravado of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), plus the martial arts of The Karate Kid (1984). But it ran into three pieces of extraordinarily bad luck. First, it was one of two movies 20thCentury Fox had to distribute and market in July of 1986. The other was James Cameron’s Aliens. Guess where the studio’s marketing muscle went. Secondly, Carpenter’s movie came out during a crowded week, squaring off against Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, Anthony Perkins’s Psycho III, Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon, and Edward Zwick’s About Last Night…Thirdly, it turns out that Americans in 1986 couldn’t get enough of Ralph Macchio kicking people in the face, because none of those films displaced The Karate Kid II from the top of the charts (that wouldn’t happen until two weeks later when James Cameron’s juggernaut rolled into theaters).

As a result, Big Trouble in Little China became something of a film maudit, disappearing from theaters before it could find the audience that fell for it on home video and cable. Carpenter, whose career seemed to be on the ascent following the popular and critical success of 1984’s Starman, soon returned to the ranks of the minors, making the low-scale wonders Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) over the following two years. But for such a gloriously scruffy movie as Big Trouble in Little China, its underdog status, while disappointing, seems apt, and very much part of its charm. The movie feels like a private pleasure shared between those chosen few blessed to be in the know, the antithesis of the normal summer blockbuster experience in which every hit becomes an oppressive inevitability, turning the promise of distraction into a threat. In its failure as a blockbuster, Big Trouble in Little China experienced the just afterlife for good movies done wrong—it got resurrected as a cult movie, something for alienated creeps, pale misfits, and sneering losers like me and probably you to stumble over on TV or in the fabled video store aisles of ancient and near-forgotten lore.

The film’s failure to take over the world isn’t surprising when you really pay attention to the damnable thing. It’s a movie that perversely sabotaged its own pretensions to summer movie dominance from the inside out. As Carpenter himself has noted, it’s an action movie in which the action hero star, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), is in fact the put-upon sidekick, always a beat or three behind the action. Nineteen-eighty-six was the year of Top Gun, and as that movie ably indicates, popular ’80s cinema was all about watching winsome winners winning (or seeing a possibly psychopathic, sexually confused dwarf start WWIII, which apparently amounted to the same thing at that moment in history), while Big Trouble in Little China is all about watching Jack Burton constantly make an ass of himself while trying to save the world. He’s a bit of a slob and a loveable fuck-up who’s nevertheless allowed more than a few stray moments of heroism in what feel like some of the most gracious moments in all of John Carpenter’s often misanthropic cinema.

The film follows Burton, a truck driver, as he ventures into San Francisco and finds himself embroiled in an effort to help his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue his kidnapped girlfriend from the clutches of Lo Pan (James Wong), an evil sorcerer who must marry and then murder a green-eyed girl in order to achieve immortality. Along the way Jack loses his precious truck and gains an almost-girlfriend in the form of fast-talking lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall). With the help of virtuous sorcerer Egg Shen (Beat artist turned marvelous character actor Victor Wong), Burton and company storm Lo Pan’s lair, where they attempt to save Wang Chi’s girlfriend and destroy the villain and his minions.

Throughout the movie, Jack Burton consistently appears to be in way over his head, while Wang Chi proves far more physically capable (he’s an expert martial artist) and much faster on the uptake than his friend. The film thus reverses and parodies the conventions of Hollywood genre fare old and new (think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [1984] and the oh-so-beloved Short Round) in which the non-white sidekick basically functions as the comic relief while perpetually playing catch-up to the more-or-less super-competent white hero. In the film’s first action set-piece, Jack Burton accompanies Wang Chi to the airport to greet Wang’s fiancée, only to square off against a gang of bandits who kidnap her. Throughout the sequence, both Burton and the audience remain in the dark about what exactly is going on, and Burton soon finds himself outmatched by the assembled thugs. We then get a great drawn-out fight scene inside an airport terminal where security seems non-existent and the attendant crowd remains curiously unfazed by the battle going on in their midst—a stone-faced refusal to panic in the face of delirium that’s indicative of the whole film’s hysterical poise. A few minutes later, Burton chases the getaway car down into a simultaneously cramped and spacious back alley (John J. Lloyd’s often ingenious production design is one of the film's secret weapons) where he finds himself in the middle of a huge gang war, wherein some of the combatants appear to possess supernatural abilities. Throughout all of this, we get maybe two sentences of exposition, and we remain as clueless and confused as Jack.

The white lead thus plays the role of a cultural outsider who constantly needs the situation explained to him, and even then remains partially in the dark (the movie was co-written by W. D. Richter, who also wrote the 1984 sci-fi cult curiosity The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, and Big Trouble in Little China shares that movie’s impish refusal to fully let the audience in on the convoluted backstory swirling around the characters). Consequently, we get a movie which treats the perspectives and abilities of its Chinatown denizens as the norm and as the accepted standard of competence while our well-meaning white hero spends most of the movie barely getting by. (All of which may help explain why the movie bombed in the year that Tom Cruise took over America and Ralph Macchio was seen as a god of martial arts.) But Jack Burton’s outsider status isn’t just a one-note joke; it’s also one way the movie approaches multiculturalism as a sort of Hawksian ideal. To even use the term multiculturalism feels slightly inappropriate here, since nothing about Big Trouble in Little China betrays the kind of white liberal self-congratulation that multicultural high-mindedness often entails. Instead, Carpenter approaches the cultural diversity of his heroic group as a professional ideal, a way of getting a job done with as little fuss and as much grace as possible, all as a way of updating the ethos epitomized by the films of classical Hollywood director Howard Hawks, whose movies provided a model for several of Carpenter’s own (Assault on Precinct 13 [1976] and Prince of Darkness were both modeled on Hawks’s Rio Bravo [1959], and The Thing [1982] was a remake/revision of Hawks’s The Thing from Another World [1951]).

In movies like Rio Bravo, Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and Air Force (1944), Hawks depicted the travails of groups of men who fought and eventually triumphed against hostile circumstances due to their shared commitment to an almost mystical notion of professionalism. In movies like Dark Star (1974), The Thing, and Prince of Darkness, Carpenter explored similar dynamics but with his groups almost invariably failing to discover any kind of shared professional ethos that might save their asses. Big Trouble in Little China is thus an unusual Carpenter movie thanks to its optimism. Rather than another portrait of tightly wound men scowling at each other while getting killed (The Thing), Carpenter shows a multiracial duo taking shared pleasure in each other’s talents (or at least each other’s good intentions) while successfully saving the day.

The movie’s finest Hawksian moment comes shortly before the film’s climactic battle in the villain’s underground lair, when Egg Shen directs the team of heroes to imbibe a mysterious potion designed to give them a mystical edge against their opponents (or as Egg Shen says, "you can see things no one else can see, do things no one else can do"). The group consists of a bunch of Chinese-American toughs plus the seemingly anomalous Burton, all swagger and flimsy tank top and John Wayne twang. Up until this moment, Burton has mostly been reacting incredulously to the absurdities erupting around him, but for all his flagrant inadequacy, Jack earns his place within the gang thanks to his devotion to his friend Wang Chi. Their relationship, rather than those between Burton and his putative love interest Gracie Law or between Wang Chi and his fiancée (who for all the dialogue she speaks, might as well be a mannequin), is the film’s most compelling. Russell and Dun consistently convey an easy rapport that gives their characters’ shared history dramatic weight. 

Their friendship achieves its apotheosis during the toasting scene before the big showdown, when the two men raise magical cocktails to each other across a shot-reverse-shot sequence that cuts between the two men’s glances and their complementarily cock-eyed ways of looking at a strange world gone suddenly stranger. In close-up, Wang Chi opens with an American military toast, “Here’s to the army and navy/And the battles they have won/Here’s to America’s colors/The colors that never run,” to which Burton soulfully replies, as only a slightly wayward student of patriotic American gentility can, “May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.” The moment plays both hip and square, all bullshit and no kidding, and the gesture’s smirking sincerity effectively brings Burton fully into the group dynamic and underscores the all-American grandeur of the team effort. Shortly thereafter, Carpenter follows up with an empyrean medium shot that crowds the ensemble into the frame as they descend down an elevator for the last stand, all the men clearly stoned out of their gourds and happily exchanging reassuringly stupid grins and goofy affirmations (Burton: "I feel kinda invincible." Wang Chi: "Me too. I’ve got a very positive feeling about this.") In its blissed-out, post-hippie kind of way, it might be the most utopian scene in all of ’80s American cinema.

The focus on the group dynamic further diminishes Burton’s heroic stature, since unlike so much popular American cinema, the movie isn’t especially interested in congratulating the hero for being heroic, and in place of the usual Hollywood movie coda where everybody gathers round and congratulates the hero on his good fortune on being so fabulous (as in Star Wars or Return of the King or, come to think of it, The Karate Kid Part II), the movie fades out on a fairly low-key celebration in a Chinese restaurant, in which Burton is merely part of the gang. Carpenter’s unwillingness to hand out gold stars to his lead gives the movie a soft landing that’s one of the film’s glories and one of the things that sets it apart from the self-aggrandizing bombast of its mid-’80s peers. In the process, he manages to put across a casually affecting vision of melting pot camaraderie.

Carpenter’s cross-cultural joke comes off so grandly partly due to Kurt Russell’s decision to spend the entire film doing the world’s best-worst John Wayne impersonation. Jack Burton doesn’t have much in the way of backstory, and in place of a biography that would inevitably water down the joke, we get iconography that comes to us through Russell’s John Wayne mannerisms. Having pretended to be Clint Eastwood for Carpemter’s Escape from New York (1981), here Russell channels the Duke as a way to create a lived-in sense of character without making too much of a fuss, exploiting the gap between the myth John Wayne invokes and the reality this affable truck driver conveys for all its worth.

We hear Jack Burton before we see him, so Russell’s “Howdy, Pilgrim” inflections become our first impression of the character. During the credits sequence, the movie cuts to a long shot of Burton’s truck rushing down the highway during a stormy afternoon, and just as the title comes up, we hear Burton say, “This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listening out there,” with a slight twang that will be vaguely familiar to anyone who’s recently experienced another dark night of the soul at 4AM in the company of The Searchers (1956) or Red River (1948) or, heaven help you, McLintock!(1963). Russell’s John Wayne act ends up working beyond mere parody, since it accomplishes the exact same kind of short hand granted by great star casting. Namely, we don’t need backstory or exposition or that great snarling bugaboo named motivation because that’s supplied by all the John Wayne movies you have and haven’t seen, invoking a phantom idea about John Wayne’s faintly ridiculous swagger and vividly ridiculous grin and not ridiculous-at-all macho pathos to give us this workaday trucker who thinks he’s a cowboy come to the rescue because maybe he secretly is.

A few further words in, as the movie cuts to a close-up of Jack yammering into his CB radio, we get just about as much backstory as the movie’s ever going to give us. Burton explains, "Like I told my last wife, I said ‘Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.’" That last line proves key, as Jack uses it as a refrain spoken at crucial moments throughout the film—like during his reunion with Wang Chi, when a fumbled knife trick sends a beer bottle flying straight into Jack’s hand, and again at the film’s finale, when another knife trick allows Jack a heroic moment. It’s Burton’s mantra, and if doesn’t quite possess the poetic weight of John Wayne’s "Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness" in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), it at least has the grace granted plain facts plainly stated. Burton’s heroism convinces precisely as an expression of animal habit, a way of getting by and acting against sound judgment that defines the character without the movie getting bogged down by the kind of ready-made kitsch pop-psych that made audiences worry about Ralph Macchio’s low self-esteem in The Karate Kid Part II: Even Further Up Your Ass and think long and hard about those hot and heady locker room glances shared between Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in Top Gun.

Russell plays Burton as a guy who’s always playing catch-up, constantly reacting to other actors and events, forcing him off into the sidelines while he tries to figure out how to turn off a gun’s safety or fetch a knife from his boot while his friends helpfully kick all the available ass. At one point, Burton, while sitting in a wheelchair, glides down a slope toward a pit of more or less certain death, and Russell hams things up admirably, screaming, going bug-eyed, and looking legitimately terrified. But at the last moment, as the wheelchair careens over an abyss, Burton manages to deftly lift himself from the chair and avoid catastrophe. Russell maneuvers himself from buffoonery and grace with a precision that speaks well of his reflexes as an actor and gives visceral substance to his character’s airy boast about his agility . Russell’s ability to suggest both clumsiness and composure carries over to the film as whole, which possesses a kind of unassuming shambling quality that mixes somewhat unsettlingly yet effectively with Carpenter’s typically intense sense of pacing.

The whole movie shows Carpenter mixing different registers in the same cinematic gestures, as it weaves between action movie pyrotechnics and wise guy sarcasm in a manner that keeps the audience a little off-balance and more than a little nervously giddy. In his deft mixture of spectacle and comedy, Carpenter proved he was a visionary by stealing from Hark Tsui several years before everybody else starting doing it. Hong Kong movies became fashionable in the United States in the early ’90s, but in 1986 Carpenter was already paying attention to movies like Tsui’s Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983) (a movie he specifically cites as an inspiration in his DVD audio commentary for Big Trouble in Little China) and Sammo Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980). The Hong Kong influence loosened up Carpenter’s style, allowing him to mix action, spectacle, and overt humor to create a shuffling yet elegant rhythm that was new to his work (Carpenter has made only one other film since—1988’s They Live—which betrays an even remotely similar sensibility).

Where Carpenter’s movies usually possess a tonal intensity that stays in one mode for the duration of the picture, Big Trouble in Little China has an emotional range that echoes Hark Tsui’s contemporaneous work, and which foreshadows the likes of John Woo’s Hard-Boiled (1992). You can spot traces of the Hong Kong exposure in the way that Carpenter moves from shock to laugh in the space of a few seconds, as when a guy gets eaten by an amusingly rubbery spider-monster in one shot and Jack Burton responds with hilarious bewilderment in the next, or during the big final battle when Burton squares off against the villain (in his most successful act of derring-do in the whole picture) with Gracie Law’s lipstick messily smeared across his lips.

In the amusingly overstuffed finale, Carpenter combines his usual Hawksian fluidity with a goofy stylistic flamboyance that was new to his work. He blends mid-air sword fighting, FX-fueled magic lightshows, and traditional martial arts fighting into a dizzying crazy-quilt whole, and the film crosscuts between different scales and modes of action—a fairly straightforward sword fighting duel between Wang Chi and his adversary plays off the near-slapstick hi-jinks of Burton and his various foes—with an economy and precision that make it perhaps the best action-oriented set piece in all of Carpenter’s films.

When seen alongside such contemporaneous Hong Kong productions as Hark Tsui's Peking Opera Blues (1986) and Siu-tung Ching’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Big Trouble in Little China’s kinship to its Hong Kong contemporaries gives Carpenter’s stylistic choices a new coherence, and Carpenter’s multicultural mercenary flair resonates amusingly with the film’s East/West narrative collisions. It’s a giddy funhouse approach to would-be popular moviemaking that looks all the more impressive now that the Sturm und Drang follies of pictures such as The Dark Knight (2008) (to pick on a movie I don’t entirely dislike) have taught people that ambitious shouldn’t mean fun and the MCU has fostered the belief that having a good time at the movies should be an act of frantic, teeth-gnashing desperation.

In place of pretension and desperation, Big Trouble in Little China has an easy, almost intimate affability that makes it feel like an elaborate private joke shared between Carpenter, Russell, Richter, and maybe two or three other grinning fools—giving the movie an insular quality that’s either one of the film’s chief charms or limitations depending on one’s affinity for Carpenter’s cowboy-hippie-nerd sensibilities. The movie’s gang-of-friends atmosphere wasn’t an accident. The movie benefits from the work of Carpenter’s stock company, a family of regular names that pop up across his oeuvre and constitute a filmmaking clique as noble if less durable as that which accompanied John Ford from film to film. It's a kith that included Russell himself (making his fourth movie with Carpenter), but perhaps even more crucially Dean Cundey, the cinematographer whose mastery of Steadicam-engineered unease and clean wide-screen compositions pretty much defined what people think of as Carpenter’s signature visual style.

The ultimate punchline to the movie’s inside joke would have to be the Coupe de Villes, a new wave rock band Carpenter formed along with his regular assistant director Tommy Lee Wallace and Nick “the guy who played Michael Myers and looks alarmingly like Adam Sandler” Castle. The band first warrants a mention in Carpenter’s 1980 movie The Fog, in which the sexy-voiced easy listening DJ played by Adrienne Barbeau introduces an anodyne smooth jazz piece as being the handiwork of our group. By ’86, the Coup de Villes seem to have abandoned ersatz jazz in favor of overblown synth-pop—more distinctive if no more graceful. The band recorded the song’s reasonably catchy theme song, a logical extension of Carpenter’s usual duties as film scorer (here providing an interestingly nervy synth score that works in tension with some of the movie’s more lighthearted elements, and helps maintain the movie’s relentless drive even when it promises to fall apart into a great hangout movie). The group’s apotheosis came in the form of a music video which accompanied the theme song, a video that in its short duration sums up something profound and awful and joyous and embarrassing about the late-1980s.

The average summer blockbuster now constitutes a competition between hype and reality, a game which results in a pulverizing insistence that you must always have fun at all costs, or else a movie whose budget was several times the GDP of many poverty-stricken nations will have been made for naught (do you dare have that on your conscience?). Too many summer event movies treat the promise of enjoyment as a form of emotional blackmail, and it’s a style of blood sport Big Trouble in Little China fails to engage in, not due to any pretensions of innocence or claims to nobility, but thanks to an amiable inertia, a feeling that nobody involved in making the movie thought that having a good time had to be treated like a kind of fanaticism. Big Trouble in Little China is an entire movie that seems to be muttering to itself another of Jack Burton’s words-to-live-by: "What the hell..?"