The Cineastes #3 Big Trouble in Little China (1986, Dir. John Carpenter)


Staring: Kurt Russell (Jack Burton), Dennis Dun (Wang Chi), Kim Cattrall (Gracie Law), James Hong (David Lo Pan)

Written by Gary Goldman & David Z. Weinstein, Adapted by W.D. Richter

“Like Ol’ Jack always says, What the hell.”

The cheese factor is strong with this John Carpenter action flick, and that is most certainly not a negative thing. Steeped in subtle, as well as blunt, references to the precursory films of the genre, Big Trouble opens with an interview about the actions of the character Jack Burton. With the cookies of window blinds on the wall behind the character being interviewed a noir-ish atmosphere is set. This then leads to a quick jump to an establishing character shot of good ol’ Jack himself. The viewer is introduced to the main character as he mouths off on a CV radio barreling down the road in his deluxe big rig, the “pork-chop express”. The character of Jack is steeped in western filmic tradition, basically an ‘every action hero’ sort of character, however the most obvious character reference embodied in Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton is John Wayne. Immediately from the intro on the CV Radio, it was clear that Jack Burton was a character obviously modeled after John Wayne.

“Reach for the Sky”

However, riffing off of the idea of the machismo soaked hero, Jack Burton is obviously a displaced hero. jokes are often made at his expense and it’s obvious that while Carpenter (Goldman, Weinstein and Richter) are in many ways paying homage to the action film, seemingly mixing many different sub-genres together (asian gangster, kung-fu, wester, etc) they are also poking fun at the conventions of the typical action film. Such as having Jack often miss the action or at least the beginning of the action because of his own stupidity, knocking himself out often and getting his ‘shoe-blade’ stuck in an opponent, and going into the final battle scene with lipstick on his lips (haha). Jack also often finds himself in over his head, and while all of the characters fit into their own archetypical characters, they often defy the logic of previous action films.

Line obviously poking fun at the western need for a bigger gun “Make you feel better, Like Dirty Harry”

As far as the cinematography and filmic techniques go, this film is a rather typical action film, steeped in medium shots, over the shoulder shots, and a generous sprinkling of deep focus as well as POV shots. The way that the film was edited, of course, lends itself well to the fast pace of a thrilling action film, as the main characters Jack Burton and Wang Chi (with a little help from their friends) race to save the girls from their devious, supernatural, matrimonial fate. The film inter-cuts between the heros and the ‘bad guys’ to create a building tension.

In typical early John Carpenter fashion he wrote the score (or at least co-wrote), however with this film we hear his scoring evolving into a much more lush and full sound, much more bombastic than that of the haunting Casio chords of the songs Halloween or Assault on Precinct 13. With this as well as many of the other filmic technique changes, make it obvious that this film as opposed to may of his others is much more about the straight action and fun rather than the suspense.

Another part of the film that I found rather interesting was the ways in which supernatural folk-lore came to life through this film. The film obviously borrows from many different cultural influences, as well as totally B.S.ing some new ones, which makes for an even interesting and aesthetically rich setting. On top of this I found the idea of an underworld rather well done and for lack of a better word ‘fun.’ In this regard Carpenter did a very good job creating a feeling of decent into a sort of hidden hellish dimension. Having the characters ever confused as the to direction which they are traveling was a very interesting technique in creating a sort of perplexing reaction from the viewers, while I’m sure remaining within a somewhat limited budget.

The ending of the film as well harkens back to the conventions of the western genre. With the day effectively saved and peace seemingly restored, everyone sits around discussing what next, and in the tradition of the lone cowboy Jack Burton ‘rides’ away solo, leaving the girl behind. But, what happens next, is left somewhat up to the imagination as a little unexpected something is along for the ride.

“sooner or later I rub everybody the wrong way, well lemme think about it”

In the end this film was a complete joy to watch. If you’re looking for a deep viewing then go ahead and watch retreat to your Godard, Bergman, or Kieslowski (just to name a few I like to run to), but if you’re looking to escape into an enjoyable fun fantasy tinted world crafted by one of the early masters of the genre you certainly have a gem in this film.

“We really shook the pillars of heaven didn’t we… No horse shit”

This Month was delightfully hosted by Crap Monster at http://www.yggnoise.com/cineastes/0709-bigtrouble

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