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, eschewing change-ups, shucks, or jives by focusing exclusively on its inability to be legitimized. Pure tripe of the 14-karat variety, it’s corporealized with 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 self-mocking rib at the carnival of Indiana Jones imitators cascading through the ’80s landscape.
Call it B-movie non-nuance at its most distilled, crystallized in Carpenter’s nearly subliminal 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.
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, subfuscous films. He works best with the subtly uncanny and the grim-and-primal, elevating maddening style stripped barren to the point of malicious hyper-realism. 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 troubleshooting when he keeps things low-to-the-ground.
However, brilliance aside, Carpenter was and is an extremely messy and often malnourished purveyor of B-movie delights. 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 replaces rigor with an extra dose of vigor. If he stumbles around its main arc in a drunken stupor, he has the full commitment of the film’s zany spirited-ness to get by as it explores more tangential, id-driven, impulsive caves or pure delight. 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 finds the further reaches of martial arts goofery and cuts through the fat, bringing everything right up to the surface level. Most fittingly, the film’s empty, 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. It contrasts rather effectively with the high-energy pop balladry on display during the film’s more exuberant moments, streamlining it and setting it out in front of the stagnant, empty backgrounds.
Speaking of ’70s martial arts films and their relation to ’30s adventure serials, the question of Orientalism in Big Trouble in Little China is most fascinating, and particularly undisclosed in most analyses of a film usually written off as a pleasing pop-culture throwaway. Most immediately, what has intrigued me most is the claim that the film is a send-up of martial arts films. True in part, 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.
A critique refracted upon the insouciant, inverted Snake Plissken of 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, too common in these sorts of action movies, where he has to play “nerd” by pretending to be completely out of his league and non-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 worm hole 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. 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.