Saturday, May 9, 2015

Big Trouble in Little China (1986) ***

From a 2015 perspective it's hard to believe John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China flopped at the Box Office back in 1986. As an action comedy Big China has aged much better than the Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop movies.  There's a self-reflexive tone to the film that's in many ways a satire of the action genre, while being a pretty good action movie in its own right. I'll wager Guardians of the Galaxy took a few cues from Carpenter's rollicking cult classic.

Kurt Russell is Jack "the check's in the mail" Burton, a boisterous truck driver who gets caught up in Chinatown intrigue during a layover in San Francisco. Russell speaks with a John Wayne drawl with an amusing trucker's cadence - must have listened to his share of CB Radio for research. He runs into his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who is about to be married.  When an evil ganglord kidnaps Wang's bride to be for sinister purposes, Jack and Wang get caught up in a trippy adventure in the heart of Chinatown's underworld.

In it's own way Big Trouble offers a unique take on the familiar East meets West themes. Jack's the typical 80s action hero - muscular, dumb, but with good intentions. His gun (white man's weapon of choice) proves laughingly impotent against Asian martial arts.  At the moment of truth he often gets clumsy.  Lost in a world that makes little sense, Jack's only effective with the help of his friends who must explain their culture to him. As the film unfolds it's clear Wang's our true hero, while Jack's the Sancho Panza.

All the action sequences are visually impressive and advance the plot. W.D. Richter's script, a rewrite of the original story set in the old west, added witty dialogue and a comic book sensibility.  While Indiana Jones and Rambo gave us infallible heroes cast in the traditional American mode, Russell offers a send up of those guys.

John Carpenter was on a roll back in the 80s.  Halloween invented the modern slasher film, Escape From New York remains one of the most stylish dystopian films ever made, and The Thing remains a horror masterpiece.  Unfortunately, conflicts with 20th Century Fox forced him back to making independent films.  Although Carpenter never gained the clout of a Lucas or Spielberg, his films continue to provoke and challenge audiences, instead of just placating them.  Big Trouble in Little China being a prime example.

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