It’s hard to believe, but one of John Carpenter‘s weirdest and best movies is turning 30 this year. As his career was about to turn a corner away from edgy, well-regarded sci-fi and horror movies and to sporadic, often hit-or-miss (if not just plain cruddy) movies, he made a trio of films that were completely his. The final two in the trio would be 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1988’s They Live, which I’ll surely write about someday, but it began in 1986 with what was one of his only true comedies and his final collaboration with master cinematographer Dean Cundey. The movie is the one and only (for now) Big Trouble in Little China.
Carpenter was already having a hell of a decade with movies like The Fog, Escape from New York, and The Thing. But as the 1980s wore on, his success meant he’d get more and more freedom, which led to movies that performed less and less well. After 1984’s Starman — Carpenter’s only film to date where he was hired to direct only — he took a year off and then reteamed with his frequent star, Kurt Russell, to make an homage to ’70s Kung fu movies. It’s a film where Carpenter’s fun is most palpable. Admittedly that’s not everyone’s cup of tea; John Carpenter’s got a weird sense of humor, after all.
Explaining the story is both easy and supremely difficult. Russell plays Jack Burton, a swaggering truck driver in San Francisco who meets his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) in “Little China” while making a stop in the city. Quickly, they’re privy to a street battle between two rival gangs, one of which goes on to kidnap Wang’s incoming betrothed Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) — a Chinese woman with jade-green eyes. This is apparently a big deal for the businessman David Lo Pan (James Hong) who is actually a centuries-old evil spirit looking to become young and corporeal again by sacrificing a woman with jade-green eyes. Any of this make sense yet?
There’s also a funky tour bus driver named Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a mystic who fights for the forces of good, and a woman named Gracie Law (Kim Catrall), a reporter looking to expose Lo Pan for the corrupt businessman he is with jade-green eyes as well. Jack and Wang have to infiltrate the seemingly endless underground world of Little China to find Miao Yin and stop Lo Pan, fighting all sorts of henchmen in the process…and also three powerful spirits, Thunder, Rain, and Lightning, who are all way more powerful than those names and their giant hats would lead people to believe.
Now, Big Trouble in Little China is definitely an odd duck, but it’s undeniably fun, starting with Russell’s hilarious performance as Jack Burton. Burton walks and acts like the toughest dude in the world — Russell even does a John Wayne impersonation for Burton’s voice — but he’s actually pretty useless and in way over his head. At a certain point in the narrative you realize that Wang is the actual hero; he’s the one who knows what’s going on, who has a personal stake in retrieving the kidnapped woman, and who has the birthright that makes him capable of winning such a fight. Jack Burton is too dumb to realize he’s the sidekick in his own movie, and that’s amazing!
Carpenter was having a lot of fun on this movie, most likely due to the lack of restrictions placed on him. Aside from “suggesting” he add the opening scene in which Egg Shen tells a lawyer after the fact about the “legend of Jack Burton,” 20th Century Fox let him do mostly what he wanted, and what he wanted was to be nuts. The movie has fantastic stunt and fight sequences involving dozens and dozens of gang members and martial artists, all of which had to be carefully choreographed and staged. Cundey’s cinematography manages to keep Carpenter’s distinctive and non-showy style while still being able to capture everything that needs to be seen. The special effects, likewise, are off-kilter but effective.
Along with Russell, with whom he’d make only one more movie (1996’s Escape from L.A.), and Cundey (in their final collaboration), Carpenter also brought back his longtime producer Larry J. Franco and co-composer Alan Howarth. Carpenter also did the theme song with his band the Coupe de Villes. It feels like you’re watching a bunch of friends being silly more than an actual movie, but it works as far as that’s concerned. Early test screenings had the movie performing incredibly well, but the lack of marketing and promotion on the part of Fox made it a pretty big bomb, another in a string for Russell who’d hit a bit of a rough patch.
Carpenter’s last two movies of the ’80s would be independent productions and neither were massive hits, though both have since developed big cult followings. It’s amazing to me that Carpenter could have made the movies he did for as short a span as it was. Now they’re considered major achievements, but aside from Halloween, Escape, and Starman, none of them were hits at the time. He was ahead of his time. I mean, you can get a Jack Burton Funkp Pop! figure now, which is unthinkable considering how much this movie tanked at the time. Gotta love the staying power of great filmmakers.
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Images: 20th Century Fox