Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
Catchphrases can be funny things. They are an indicator of whether a film has made an indelible cultural mark, as just uttering a line conjures in the mind of the beholder the movie in all its affable glory – ‘I’ll be back‘, ‘I made him an offer he can’t refuse‘, ‘Phone Home’, ‘Nobody’s perfect’. As soon as the silents became talkies certain lines of dialogue encapsulated the film and its squawking star persona, from Garbo’s insistence of ‘vanting to be alone’ to Frankenstein shrieking ‘It’s alive’. Heck even when a bastardisation of the actual line enters the vernacular the remnants still resonate – ‘Play it again, Sam’ – the omission or addition of a single word echoing in ignorance throughout the ages. Sometimes, mischievous filmmakers take these tropes and playfully mock their prevalence, the cinematic equivalent of having your cake and eating it, simultaneously poking fun at the cliché while also flirting with their affection – after all ’it’s all in the reflexes’. This bring us to the wonder that is Big Trouble In Little China, a film which amusingly mocks the 1980’s fish-out-of-water action paradigm, while also predicting Hollywood’s assimilation of Oriental action and martial arts cinema by at least a decade. With his career suffering a flat-line after the fiscal flop of The Thing John Carpenter hesitantly moved toward the centre with safer projects, line-assembling the Stephen King adaption Christine (probably the least discussed of all his golden era films), and inverting the alien as outsider threat with Starman which can dismissively described as E.T. with adults. Out of the rising sun came his next project, reuniting with the Mifune to his Kurosawa Kurt Russell, their fourth collaboration which hardly reversed his barren box-office boon, barely recouping 50% of its then medium weighted budget.
Astoundingly this was not the first time I’ve seen Big Trouble at the cinema, as it may make you smirk to learn that I actually dragged two friends to see this on its general release back in 1986, and while both heretics dismissed the film as ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ I was of course enthralled, so who’s laughing now Darren Jiggins and Stuart Townsend? Well? Despite being widely dismissed during the 1990’s the film (alongside They Live) has been reassessed in the internet age, coalescing into a dedicated cult audience perhaps more attuned to cultural and genre meldings of an elixir of dumb-ass action movie, slapstick comedy, gravity defying wuxia acrobatics and mild San Francisco focused Orientalism. Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a macho lunkhead trucker who is unluckily drawn into a kidnapping plot when his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) new mail order Chinese bride is abducted by a cadre of black garbed goons at the airport. Unfortunately it turns out that his new bride is destined to fulfil an ancient prophecy, the power to invigorate ancient sorcerer Lo-Pan (a cackling James Hong) with a reinvigorating immortality, through a rather unfortunate bought of human sacrifice. With plucky investigative reporter Gracie (Kim Cattral) also embroiled in the imbroglio the stage is set for an agile adventure secreted behind the façade of reality, where deep in the bowels of San Francisco ancient powers battle mystical forces from beyond the mysterious orient……
Structurally Big Trouble In Little China is hardly a prototype of a new seething action cinema, but it was something of a trailblazer in bringing some of the mystical martial arts momentum to a less adventurous, silo separated Westernized audience – that’s what I think caused the film to fail thirty years ago. For the truly faithful we’ve always appreciated its odd mélange of styles and influences, it’s just so much dumb yet genuinely amusing fun, never taking its characters seriously but investing enough inciting mysticism and physics shredding choreography into the action sequences and internecine character banter. No doubt some could read the film slightly distastefully in 2016 with some broad archetypes of the inscrutable immigrant on display, but it’s not like it’s as immediately offensive as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s or Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or anything, and the real hero is the dexterous Wang while Jack blunders around like a drunken oaf, intoxicated on a cheap combination of Sangria laced Sambucca. The style is comic book stylistics before the medium really began to gain traction over all blockbuster product, moving fast enough to obscure any narrative nuance, dazzling the audience with some cool stunt and editing work which papers over a rather perfunctory plot. Some of the special effects are a little on the dated side and the creature and prosthetics designs inelegantly express their 30 years, but when you get to my venerable age of cult movie fandom that’s part of the fun, the tactile, physical SFX as part of the films tensile temperature as the haircuts, costumes, or wider cultural references. If you want to really get into some of the minutiae then I’ve heard that the primary influence was Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain which inspired the revolutionary wire work, both films barely containing characters who ricochet around the sets like Percocet powered pinballs, while Jack generally asks a lot of questions;
That’s as good a montage as you’re likely to get, and this wouldn’t be a Menagerie review of a John Carpenter film if we didn’t single out the synth pulsing score for a little love now would it? It’s a more playful and flippant choral mix than you’d normally expect from the usual sonic slithering, with regular collaborator Alan Howarth providing his usual, instructive support– I’m already getting excited for October. Visually you may identify the masterful eyes of Dean Cundey at work, one of the industries most respected artisans when it comes to disguising and melding live and SFX elements. After perfecting his art in the likes of Escape From New York and The Thing Spielberg selected him to lens a modest little picture called Jurassic Park just a trio of years later. Coincidently just this week I finally saw the notorious exploitation classic The Witch Who Came From The Sea and can you guess who photographed that? He crops up as interview subject in a few short DVD extras.
Before the arrival of Jackie Chan, before John Woo, before Ang Lee but after Bruce Lee, Hollywood of the late 1980’s was struggling for new hooks to hang its genre templates upon, casting their net wide to co-opt foreign genre successes which they could then mould into their classical narrative templates – a bit of romance with no actual sex, a three act structure complete with inciting incident and equilibrium restoring climax, some misguided yet not entirely stringent distrust of foreign customs and clients. Rumours persist that the film was rushed into production as some effort to slipstream in the success of Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child, or maybe the whole interest in the orient as source material was just another of those zephyous passing studio executive fads. There is rather odd underlying philosophy lurking in the corner of these pictures, Carpenter does seem fascinated with the possibility of forces behind the fabric of reality, of the potential of permeable barriers between dimensions, personified in the sage-alike Obi Wan character Egg Shen (Victor Wong) which bleeds nicely into his next picture Prince Of Darkness and the final scream of his apocalypse trilogy In The Mouth Of Madness. I remember his enunciation of these interests during a fondly remembered BBC transmission called Horror Café, a late night discussion panel where he was joined by such gruesome luminaries as Clive Barker, Roger Corman and Ramsay Campbell, a rediscovery which I stumbled across like a menacing tree root in a fog shrouded graveyard, and you can exorcise it here.
Somehow the boisterous boffins at the Prince Charles have sourced a wonderful, pristine 70mm print which hung on the screen like an animated lìzhóu, the colours and combat popping like a delicious dish of sizzling szechuan chicken. Big Trouble isn’t the greatest action film ever made, it’s certainly not the most dazzling martial arts film ever made, but it is a confection of tightly coiled fun, unabashedly goofy and playful, and Russell’s perfectly calibrated performance goes a long way in maintaining that deliriously devoted cult audience as yet another personification of Carpenters cynical, wisecracking anti-heroes. There is evidently something in the water as after the January Kubrick season and this Carpenter programme what is coming up at the Prince Charles in May? Oh, only a blinking Michael Mann season which means I can finally see Menagerie favorite Thief and perhaps The Keep on the big screen, you’d think I’d brought shares in them or sold my soul to some sort of slithering celluloid cacodemon. But we’re not done with Mr. Carpenter just yet, as to infiltrate the bank holiday we must worship at a very special triple bill, which means I can finally get those tachyons pulsing and revisit the year one….nine….nine…..