Update late 2018: With the new Halloween film out in theaters, the implacable, autumnal chill of the John Carpenter classic that kickstarted that series is as irrevocable as ever. But, while I adore his Halloween, as wonderfully quotidian and keyed-in to late’ 70s social malaise as it is timelessly antediluvian, I have a soft spot for this far more squirrely little film, Halloween’s polar opposite, and a comic paradise to Halloween’s purgatorio and the frostbitten inferno of The Thing.
A self-aware critique in the spirit of Said, this film is as loopy in its meditations and as mischievous in its skepticisms about social convention as any of Carpenter’s films, and it still feels like a more deliciously disreputable extension of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to name another ’80s bastion of American masculinity that is, in fact, infamously recalcitrant in its attitude toward its protagonists’ white-male-hero bonafides. Few filmmakers could pivot from the monstrous to the ridiculous quite like Carpenter.
Edited June 2016
John Carpenter always wanted to make a martial arts film. With Big Trouble in Little China, he reconstituted something closer to THE martial arts film. This is, of course, not to say it is the best martial arts ever made (far from it). Rather, this is a film that tries its damnedest to pay homage to the genre by marinating it in its own juices, a kind of ur-martial arts film that doubles back to self-parody. Pure tripe of the 14-karat variety, Big Trouble has goofy, slantwise characters, a schlocky-shifty sensibility cooked to perfection, mostly non-stop action that twirls and flourishes with pizzaz and gusto like choreographed ballet (albeit of the grubby variety), and above all, it paints a vision of the world in which everybody, and I mean everybody, knows martial arts and is just waiting around for an opportunity to use it. Less a send-up of martial arts than a critique of anglicizing Eastern products, Big Trouble is a teasing rib at the carnival of Indiana Jones imitators cascading through the ’80s landscape. In particular, it presents a self-mocking portrait of Western films which mobilize Eastern martial arts and thereby essentialize and exoticize it.
Admittedly, Big Trouble also doesn’t present Carpenter in his natural habitat. Carpenter can be a master filmmaker when he wants to, but his comic side is not nearly in the same league as the tight and unforgiving cruelty he brings to his most malevolent films. He works best with the subtly uncanny and the grim-and-primal, elevating maddening style stripped barren to the point of malicious, almost impressionistic minimalism. His greatest films, Halloween, The Thing, and the more amateurish Assault on Precinct 13, find beauty in human hell and elevate clinical detachment to a new art form, at least among American directors. A low-brow director, Carpenter’s tools are at their most insidious when he keeps things low-to-the-ground and primordial.
However, brilliance aside, Carpenter was and is an extremely messy purveyor of B-movie delights, and he could indulge his shaggy side as well. Silliness often gives him an excuse to sacrifice form and rigor, to slacken his eye and lose control of his best self, the one with the Machiavellian iron grip and no cause for conscience or room for remediation. And, for all its strengths, Big Trouble in Little China is not a well-formed or rigorous film. Thankfully, Carpenter treats Big Trouble’s shaggy-ness not as a failing so much as a new texture to lean in to. If he stumbles around the film’s main arc in a drunken stupor, he gets a great deal of mileage out of his commitment to the zany spirited-ness of the situation, getting by not via a tight narrative but a lethargic, loose aura of laidback exploration. This is Carpenter at his most tangential, wayward, peering into impulsive caves of pure delight. Every scene is transparently an idea he had on its own, and the film is self-evidently a loose, almost associational string of these scenes; that the film succeeds is because it doesn’t pretend otherwise.
Again, the direction isn’t quite up to par, but the visual kookiness certainly finds the film re-creating its faux chop-socky sensibility with style. Not so much exterior look as interior sensibility, Carpenter’s kinetic fun emphasizes the furthest reaches of martial arts goofery, cutting through the fat of narrative and bringing the absurdity right up to the surface level. Call it B-movie non-nuance at its most distilled, crystallized in Carpenter’s casual mastery of the screen. Every character is a stereotype. The Mystical Old Asian Guy Who Solves Problems With Silly Sounding Words. The Mythic Evil Sorcerer Who Creates Problems With Even Sillier Sounding Words Than The Nice Old Asian Guy. The Sidekick Who Is Inordinately Good At Martial Arts. The Strong Woman Reporter Who Announces Herself By Name Every Time She Appears. The Honky. The story plays fast and loose, and as much as I can approximate, it goes something like this: Mr. Old Sorcerer wants a Green Eyed Girl for some strange reason that doesn’t matter and is willing to do particularly nasty things to get her. Ms. Reporter Lady has green eyes. The Honky, played by Jack Burton, who is in turn played by Kurt Russell, gets in the way.
A particular and film-situating triumph of Big Trouble in Little China, perhaps its strongest feature, is that it looks artificial. The film’s kooky, spooky appearance has the intentionally fake, set-like look of the 1930s Western adventure films this work owes as much to as the more obvious influence of ’70s martial arts imports. Once the plot kicks in, its Chinatown, San Francisco set immediately loses any sense of truth, any essence of reality; there’s no geographic eye, no attempt by Carpenter to explore the location or to even make it plausible as a tangible space. This is the key that unlocks the film, and perhaps the question of Orientalism in it. Certainly, Big Trouble is a send-up of martial arts films. But Carpenter begs more specificity. With its vacant US setting and self-consciously day-glo ’80s style, Big Trouble in Little China presents a trivializing vision of Asian culture, only to abscond and imply that this curated racism only exists in the minds of Americans who are fascinated with Asia as a collective reflection of quintessentially Western flights of fantasy. It seems not so much a pastiche of an actual martial arts film as an exploration, and hyperbolic extension of, the quintessential tone-deaf martial arts film made by Americans. It is, in other words, a kind of parody of an American martial arts film.
A critique refracted upon the insouciant, inverted Snake Plissken that is Jack Burton, played by Kurt Russell with a self-deprecating wit and an inebriated deviousness. Here, he’s not the white savior; instead, he’s utterly incompetent. There’s a scene where he has to play “nerd” by pretending to be completely out of his league and none-the-wiser. The film’s brilliant in-joke is that this is Jack Burton playing himself, a goofball who hired self-importance in place of cunning. His famous line, “well you know what Ol’ Jack Burton always says”, is undercut by the fact that this is just about the only thing of note he ever says to anybody, rendering the phrase a laws-of-physics defying escapade into the wormhole of surrealism.
All of this doesn’t reclaim Big Trouble in Little China as some sort of post-structural kaleidoscope of surreptitious anarchism or subterranean rebellion, or redefine Carpenter as some sort of mad socially conscious genius. It’s still mostly just a nice little raffish slab of genre fluff, and any claim that the film is really a radical parody of action filmmaking is counteracted or at least delimited by the joie de vivre of the film to begin with, the fact that Carpenter is, after all, thrilled to be making an American martial arts film. Still, the thought that the film can even entertain this sort of discussion is fairly provocative in its own right. Certainly, it’s a whole hell of a lot more than anyone might expect for that “silly lesser John Carpenter martial arts film” everyone is always talking about.