Monday, August 29, 2016

2016 Blind Spot Series: Big Trouble in Little China

Occasionally, life can get in the way of this blogging thing. Such was the case last month. Nothing specific happened, but I was busier than normal. In all the commotion of my existence I forgot about the movie I was supposed to watch for Ryan's Blind Spot Series until it was too late. I did get to watch it a few days later. I was also planning to make this a double feature, including the movie I was actually supposed to watch this month. I was all set to watch it when I discovered it had been pulled from Netflix. Now, I have to find it through other means. In the meantime, I still have that one movie. That movie is...

Why did I pick it? I've mentioned before how I grew up on 80s action flicks. My teenage years coincided with the heydays of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, and the like. As it turns out, a number of the movies I loved weren't necessarily big hits, but went on to become cult classics. Such is the case with Big Trouble in Little China. In the context of what I've said so far, this is a movie I should have spent at least a few late nights watching as I plied myself with potato chips and Yahoos, but alas it never happened. I must have had a subconscious mental block where Kurt Russell is concerned. A lot of his more popular movies got away without me seeing them. I've been rectifying this, as of late. Within the last few years, I had my first viewings of Escape from New York, Escape from L.A., and The Thing. Now, let's cross this one off the list, too.

The film starts with us riding along with Russell as truck driver Jack Burton in his 18-wheeler as he's barking loudly into his CB radio to no one in particular about his philosophies on life and his own greatness. We next see him in San Francisco's Chinatown winning a high stakes poker hand, wiping out Wang Chi (Dennis Dun). Undeterred, Wang offers double or nothing on whether or not he can cut a beer bottle in half with a knife. Of course, this fails. Wang has to go home to get the money, but first has to go to the airport to pick up his girlfriend. The key to her entire existence, it seems, is the fact she has green eyes. Since he's no sucker, Jack doesn't just tag along, he makes Wang ride with him to the airport. Once there, we're introduced to Jack's love interest, the appropriate named lawyer Gracie Law played by Kim Cattrall. Happy birthday to her, by the way. She just turned 60 last week. Gracie is apparently some kind of expert on local Chinese culture. Also at the airport are a group of thugs who kidnap Wang's girl. Wang and Jack chase them back to Chinatown to attempt a rescue only to find themselves in the middle of a gang war between our bad guys, the Wing Kong and good guys the Chang Sing. While watching the two factions tear into each other, things take a turn for the strange when three guys coming floating down out of the sky and start taking out the Chang Sing. Understandably, Wang and Jack make a run for it. They get away but not before seeming to drive his truck right through an older dude who remains unharmed. That guy turns out to be our main villain, the mythical Lo Pan (James Hong). When their escape is complete, Jack has left his truck, and more importantly, Wang still doesn't have his girl. The two enlists the help of Gracie and an assortment of other characters for a daring rescue mission. Martial arts, magic, and all around nuttiness ensues.

It is easily understandable that Big Trouble in Little China has gained such a huge cult following over the years. It is insanely fun. That mix of martial arts and magic makes for a weird concoction and adds to our amusement. Fight scenes play out in fine fashion and come at regular enough intervals to keep the movie rolling along. The special fx are mostly, and gloriously, practical which has an undeniable charm. It should be noted John Carpenter was not particularly pleased with the way the fx turned out. He felt like the company who handled them for this film, Boss Film Studios, spread themselves too thin over too many projects and did not give his movie the attention it deserves. They have countered this claim by stating how much they loved working on it and that the fx budget was was not really enough to completely fulfill Carpenter's vision. However, it worked out for the best as the end result is a film with plenty to keep our eyes dancing around the screen. Thirty years later, it still looks good, for the most part.

Also adding to our enjoyment of this film is a good deal of humor. Kurt Russell is in full blowhard mode. He's completely full of himself, selfish, loud about it all, and somehow makes it work. He's also a moron. Russell makes Jack a believable reluctant hero. We understand he is a guy who normally only decides to do things based on what he can get out doing them. We also get that in this particular situation he's doing something even though he knows what he will get out it will likely not be anywhere near equal what he's putting in. Russell plays it all with the perfect amount of snarkiness. His performance combines with a very clever script to keep us laughing and/or amazed by the things he says. Plenty of things come out his mouth that make us simultaneously chuckle and shake our heads.

Director John Carpenter sets the pace on hyper drive and rarely lets up, which perfectly suits this particular film. Most of the work I've seen by him has a slow burn quality. This isn't to say they're boring because they are not. They just have patient story-telling coupled with a deliberateness that draws us into their plots. Even his classic slasher flick Halloween takes its time developing the horror it's known for despite barely running 90 minutes. Big Trouble actually runs a few minutes longer, but gives the audience less time to breathe. That perfectly suits this film as Carpenter realizes he essentially has a bag of junk food for his audience. Junk food is best consumed when not too much thought has been put into what you're getting.

Even without much time to think, there are some noticeable flaws in Big Trouble Admittedly, some of these I may not have noticed had I seen it when it came out in 1986. I was 15. Aside from my own growth and, hopefully, maturity, society as a whole views things through a different prism in 2016. Through my much older, more educated eyes and with the way the world has changed over the last 30 years I see some unnecessary, and in some cases, unsettling things. It so happens the two are related. Ironically, they both revolve around the man of the hour, Jack Burton.

If it isn't already clear, Jack is the most fun, well developed character in the film by a long shot. Lo Pan is the lone exception to this. That character is played wonderfully by James Hong, however, he's much more fun than he is developed and the performance is a major plus. Everyone else is a one-note, stereotypical caricature. There are several problems with this. The first is we really don't care a ton about the actual plot, nor the people involved. The girl everyone is trying to rescue is just that, the girl they're trying the rescue. The fact she is of Chinese descent, yet has green eyes is all the development she gets. Other women are there to get in the way and provide additional damsels in distress. Gracie Law talks a great game, but does very little that's actually helpful. Her buddy Kate does even less. Both are also here to provide a love interest for a male character, naturally. Wang does most of the heavy lifting, as in all of the fighting and most everything that actually requires accomplishing something.

The second issue, the one most easily recognizable to viewers who only see what's on a film's surface, is he's really incidental to the plot. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones suffers a similar fate. Had Indy not been in that film at all, the Nazis would have still gotten to the same place and had exactly the same thing happen to them. It's the same, here. Everything that happens could have been accomplished without Jack's presence. As mentioned, it's actually Wang that does everything for most of the film. Later in the film, he's helped tremendously by a person named Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a sorcerer to rival Lo Pan. Jack does such effective things as screw up ruses, get captured, and knock himself out. Seriously.

Those two issues really just feed another larger issue. This is the one I certainly would not have noticed back in '86. Big Trouble fits comfortably within the sub-genre of films utilizing the White Savior trope. As mentioned, Jack doesn't really save anything. Still, the other characters act as if nothing can be accomplished without him. He never proves himself worthy of even being involved in a rescue mission, yet every step of the way Wang keeps asking Jack to lead them in the next phase of the adventure. It might not be so bad if Jack weren't so clearly mentally and physically inept. Jack threatens to abandon Wang and company on a number of occasions. If I'm Wang, I would gladly let him go. Instead, Wang practically begs him to stay. Why? Throughout the film, the Chinese characters make it painfully clear they are indebted to Jack for all he's done. When this is said at the beginning I was okay with it. As it's repeated throughout the movie I kept wondering what it would be to make them feel this way. By the end, I was still baffled about their sentiment. This is a story where Wang and Egg Shen are clearly the heroes, yet not allowed to be seen that way. The straight white male has to be, or at least be made out to be, the hero. Again, this would be more tolerable if he were actually germane to the plot, but he really isn't. He's just along for the ride and lucky not to be killed twenty minutes into the movie.

With all of that said, the movie is still one I recommend seeing if you haven't. As I stated earlier, it's a very fun ride that lays heavy on the gas pedal pretty much from the jump. There are lots of fun, creative visuals, plenty of action, and witty humor to carry the day. Simply skimming the surface of the film will ensure we have a good time watching Big Trouble. Russell, more avatar for the audience than hero makes Jack engaging despite not really doing much. In that regard, it is one of the best performances I've seen from him. Carpenter gives one of his best performances from the director's chair, as well. He has a story with precisely only one human being who can even be considered three-dimensional and a paper thin story, yet he manages to spin it into quite the enjoyable yarn.

Other Movies in the 2016 Blind Spot Series


  1. This is definitely one of my favorite films..... ever!!!! I just love the silliness of it as well as Kurt Russell doing his best to be a funny version of John Wayne. It's nuts and not afraid to be cheesy and not have everything work. Still waiting for that comeback film from John Carpenter.

    1. I know a lot of people adore this. Glad you have that connection with it. I'd love for JC to make a comeback.

  2. I am surprised that this was a blind spot for you Dell, it really seems right up your alley. While Escape from New York and Snake Plissken remain my favorite of this kind of action movie/role with regards to Kurt Russell this one is a fun dopey ride.

    This is so representative of films of its kind that were being churned out in the 80's, fast paced junk that managed to make a mint because they used B level actors and budgets and were undemandingly entertaining. They also relied on more or less believable action, somewhat heightened but not to the absurd levels of the later and increasing ridiculous installments of Die Hard and other trash now that have the feeling of video games rather than films where you're constantly yelling at the screen "Oh Come On! no one could survive THAT!

    1. I know, right. That's why I had to finally watch it. It is a fun, dopey ride. To be honest, I probably would've enjoyed it better had I seen way back when.

      It is representative of what was coming out at the time. By this time, Russell was a fairly well known commodity which makes it surprising this film did very poorly at the box office. It only pulled in $11 mil against a budget of $25 mil, which is pretty sizable for the era. Taking that into consideration, perhaps it's not so surprising I hadn't seen it.

  3. I hate when that happens. You plan, settle in and Netflix goes and takes it away. So many of mine have gone. Luckily I found a replacement DVD for one of my blind spots in parents collection - that was lucky.

    The movie sounds like epic fun!! I think my friend has suggested this for a drinking game a few times but I hadn't seen it - yet - we didn't use it but that can change. I love the fact the fx aren't super amazing - does that make a film feel better. No so super great fx can change a film into something superior just look at The Force Awakens, going back to old school way. There's someting about Kurt Russell too, especially back in the day, he can a blowhard oh so well.

    1. It's loads of fun. I agree with your friend, it'll make a great drinking game.