What’s On The Shelf: In Times of Big Trouble, Hang Out in Little China
With news, reviews and events in the fair city of film a little thinner on the ground at the moment, Film In Dublin will taking an occasional look at What’s On…The Shelf, taking a deeper dive in to some of the films in their personal collections. This time, Luke Dunne goes on long on John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.
There is a long-haul truck barrelling down a dark and empty American road. It’s late and the rain hammers down on the highway, but the truck, large and deafening, is a human evolution beyond natural signals to stop, and so it powers on stubbornly. It has a mud flap girl on the front, because of course it does, the piggish sexuality an exclamation point on the cartoonish excess of it all, her hair forever billowing in the wind while her vehicle is “Hauling Ass”.
It is the Pork Cho Express. Meat; ASAP. In its way it’s as symbolic of confrontational masculinity, not to mention the grotesque capitalist drive and excess and the conservative powers that shapes our modern world, as anything Hollywood cinema has to offer, and on its inside might be a firmer symbol still; its driver all John Wayne bravado with a blue collar on his neck and a burger flying down his gullet as fast as his speeding truck.
He’s a cog in this wider world, but a cog is at least able to keep turning when placed in a machine, and this trucker hauling excess at express has the comfort of having a firm place in the world. Perhaps that’s what gives him the confidence to spout off over the CB about any subject that comes into his head, no topic – life, death, the question of whether we are alone in the universe – too lofty to breach the confidence of a guy at the perfect intersection of privilege. Strong, outspoken, white, male, but low enough on the totem pole, salty enough about being salt-of-the-earth, to remain an underdog. Going nowhere, knowing nothing and yet still somehow keeping ahead. Has he paid his dues? Yes sir, the cheque is in the mail.
Little does he know that he is about to be plunged into a nightmare, overwhelmed by threats to his livelihood, life and relationships that are way beyond his understanding or capacity to control. Now he’s in Big Trouble, higher authorities are absent or outmatched – they have better things to be doing – and no matter how hard he tries to reassert some power over the situation, this strange, scary, immeasurable threat slaps him back down, exposing his incompetence and worse still, his insignificance.
The world will do that to you sometimes. Most times. The world will leave you confused, bewildered, small, anxious. It can take from you what few comforts you do have, and it won’t even know it’s doing it. This trucker’s tormenters don’t even offer the solace of malice; they don’t know who he is, and they don’t care. Perhaps you’ve felt like that in your life, especially recently. Crushed as an afterthought. Sometimes all you can do is band together with friends and allies, barrel through, keep on trucking. Sometimes you’ve got to accept when you don’t know what’s going on and let those who do take point so you can stay safe and sane. Sometimes you’ve got to throw your hands up and say what the hell, roll with the punches and hope you get a sliver of good fortune to see you through.
Sometimes you’ve just got to ask, what would old Jack Burton do in a time like this?
A critical and commercial failure on its initial release, Big Trouble in Little China has grown into a cult hit over the last 35-odd years, though it’s still seen as a relatively lesser light in its creator’s filmography. The usual personal flourishes of director John Carpenter, paired with a lighter tone to some of his other prominent works, makes it ideal for themed screenings, dorm room how-have-you-never-seens and endless personal re-watches. The film is lighter in tone and message and less immediately impactful than the vicious and visceral messages of Carpenter’s most lauded work. Which may knock the more incongruous comedy-gunslinging-martial arts fantasy down a few pegs in appreciation, but movies don’t only need to be Big and Important to be powerful. It’s an exceptional hangout movie, and the hangout movie’s strength is its ability to sink you deeper in love with it over time, to leave you blissfully surrounded by the scenes it sets, the people it presents. Many films made by Carpenter, the great mysterious uncle of Hollywood, do just that.
The films is an odd mix of martial arts fantasy, low-brow action and ironic comedy. Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton, all muscles and mullet, teams up his pal Wang Chi to help him rescue his fiancée from mysterious bandits in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s weird and wonderful, with a healthy dash of cynicism and some grit to add earthy flavours to the camp.
Carpenter’s work, with their inviting widescreens, unmistakable synth scores and characters distinctive both visually and in personality, offer a warm familiarity, even or perhaps because they are so frequently bleak and cynical. Whether it’s stripping back the perceived safety of suburbia in Halloween, revealing the merciless control of capitalism in They Live or playing out the inevitable self-destruction of mistrust in The Thing, Carpenter will never bullshit about harsh realities, but by presenting them through the remove of genre fiction and his own distinctive style, their blows can be refined and reconfigured.
Truths presented in a Carpenter movie are less harsh lectures and more trade secrets revealed with a shrug of the shoulders and a pass of a cigarette; his dangerous, even doomed worlds remain inviting, their imperfections and struggling characters giving them a lived-in quality, while their polished aesthetics make them enticing. The threat is real, and there’s not much you can do to stop it, but at least you’re not crazy for noticing. The terrifying unknown becomes a co-worker you can gossip about while chilling on a break. If we already live in hell, what is hell with a vibing Carpenter soundtrack if not an improvement?
His characters, rough around the edges, are cast adrift in situations that are beyond their comprehension and usually threating to their safety, and are left with no option but to adapt, react and survive. In ensemble movies like The Thing or Assault on Precinct 13, even the ramshackle group that gravitate towards Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, working-class people, who may have a connection of some kind but are not necessarily friends, are thrown together by circumstance and set against a problem. The threats they face reveal their characters and their worldviews in how they go about not just solving them, but in how they interact with each other while they do so. Common ground can be improbably established. Failure to trust and cooperate makes doom, already looming large, more of a certainty.
There are ways in which these ensembles are reminiscent of a bunch of old mechanics spending all Saturday on a job, jockeying for position, grousing about the best methods, trading jokes and insults in equal measure, drinking cheap beer, smoke of various sources hazing through the air as they try to get to the bottom of fixing a car. Except the car is trying to kill them. That this comes from the director who really did make a movie about a car trying to kill people is its own little irony. Though Big Trouble in Little China is fun, more light-hearted and broad, it remains a story of disparate characters faced with overwhelming obstacles. They’re truckers, restaurant workers, bus drivers – grounded by their status if not their personalities. And they’re battling through literal hells they either don’t understand or don’t want to believe in, but must confront all the same. Despite the stakes, there’s an often chill atmosphere that tempers the tension pleasantly. Plans to storm evil lairs are made at the dinner table, brainstormed over noodles, empty bottles everywhere. Characters lob accusations of “crushes” at each other like it’s a school classroom, with beautiful and attention-grabbing Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law the Prom King and Queen of this rag tag crew, bicker-flirting throughout the film.
Carpenter wanted to add Howard Hawks-style screwball comedy to the film’s script, and while this should further muddle an already crowded mix of genres and styles, the quickfire back and forth and the easy-going atmosphere keeps a plot-heavy film moving at pace, Big Trouble full of so many gangs, monsters, minions and side characters that it becomes impossible to keep track of them all. The tone also makes the core cast of archetypes easier to appreciate, turning them into harmless, hard-working screw-ups trying their best. In contrast to many other works by Carpenter, they’re also victorious in the end, even while the main protagonist can’t help showing his ass at every opportunity.
With his posturing, overconfidence and determination to walk off stoically into the sunset no matter how many times he makes a fool of himself, Jack Burton is famous for being the comic sidekick who thinks he’s the Action Hero. The story of Big Trouble in Little China involves a battle between good and evil that has been waged for thousands of years. The fiendish Lo-Pan has been cursed to roam the earth, gang wars between the Chang Sing and the Wing Kong that threatens to tear the Chinese district of San Francisco apart, kidnappings and international scandals that the enterprising lawyer Gracie has been floundering trying to bring to light, and the young love of Wang Chi and Miao Yin placed at risk by ritual sacrifice. Yet as far as Jack Burton is concerned, the film is a terrible thing that is happening to him specifically.
Wang has worked for years in his restaurant to save the money to bring Miao Yin to the States, only to see her kidnapped before she make it out of the airport. While Jack deserves credit for instantly aiding his friend in the effort to get her back, it’s not long before he’s thinking of bailing, bitching about his truck being stolen as an equivalent loss and angrily demanding explanations for the exceptional events taking place around him. To millennial viewers, always aggravatingly accused yet self-deprecatingly aware of seeing themselves as “the protagonist of reality”, Jack’s complaint that he is “a reasonable guy experiencing some very unreasonable things” resonates. We recognise the self-centredness (particularly in the form of underqualified machismo) and feel secure in separating ourselves from it.
On another level though, his behaviour is understandable; an effort to process something alienatingly bigger than him. He adopts a cavalier attitude, shielding the fear of failure and of realising his smaller place in the world with sarcasm, that ironic air that always implies that you know exactly what’s going on but are too cool to care. “Sit tight, hold the fort, and keep the home fires burning and if we’re not back by dawn, call the President.” It’s a smarmy, over-the-top Action Hero line, but the air of detachment protects Jack from a humanising uncertainty. They’re fighting warlocks and monsters, they actually might not be back by dawn. This push and pull between traits that make Jack Burton ostensibly off-putting yet easy to like, filtered through the immeasurable charisma of Kurt Russell, are what give the film’s lead the magnetism that keeps pulling him back into the centre of a story that is not really his. Though the film has its flaws, veering on the edge of incoherence and perpetuating preposterous Orientalist stereotypes (even lovingly), I can’t help but by charmed by it every time. Every time except the first time that is.
Big Trouble in Little China was a movie I first saw on rental, from the grand tradition of movies my dad “heard were meant to be good”. Every Friday back in the day he would rent a bundle of movies from the Xtra-Vision, a warm and thrilling ritual. A warehouse worker, my dad was often worn down carrying boxes, barking orders, labouring through long, late hours. Like Jack Burton he was no stranger to loading trucks and driving them through lonely roads. During the week, he would work night shifts, sleep most of the day and come home late, weary and rarely in good humour, but Friday meant freedom, levity and that great gift: movies. If it wasn’t a recent release, it would be something he told us “I heard it was meant to be good”.
This could cover anything from a movie he saw in his youth and half-remembered, or a classic he felt we were finally ready to see – as a stickler for ratings it was a big deal when my dad decided we were ready for horse heads in beds or killer sharks in the water. Sometimes it just meant whatever was closest to hand by the time he thought he had been standing in the video shop for too long, the category Big Trouble in Little China likely fell into too.
That first time viewing lasted about 40 minutes before my older brother and I gave up and turned it off. So bewildered were we by the film’s chaotic combination of Weird Western and kung fu movie conventions, its breathless introduction of characters and lore and its blindsiding bullshitting of its leading man, that we couldn’t keep pace with it. The film went back to the shop, another of the movies our dad “heard was good” seemingly proven to be wrong, and yet it lingered in our heads in the days afterwards. We looked up trailers, saw some more of the film’s gags, with a little remove we saw Jack’s brazen confidence more explicitly comedic, and our intrigue kept growing.
The plot didn’t make any sense at the time – in many ways, it still doesn’t – yet the characters had gotten their hooks into us, Jack Burton in particular, and it wasn’t long before we got our dad to take the movie out again, rewatched and fell firmly in love. Now we were the ones telling him it was meant to be good. Pouring over it again and again over years, letting the quips and kicks, lightning and explosions wash over, no longer as concerned with trying to keep the busy plot straight, similar themes to Carpenter’s more serious works have snapped into focus. It’s also revealed an unexpected thread tied to the man who first presented the film to me.
Having a physical job, looking after a family with varying needs and himself having a strict upbringing, my dad could be a very intimidating figure when I was a kid. He could be short-tempered, snappy, inconsiderate, and to an already sensitive child, this cultivated a wariness over time to my dad or anyone like him. Any flittering glimpse of similar moods, behaviours, mannerisms that would set the fight or flight in the back of my brain on alert. I have a good relationship with him now, but the underlying anxieties can still be there. As a teenager, I was just growing up enough to understand my dad better as an Actual Person; complexities and flaws and failings accounted for alongside his good qualities, his loyalty, his cheeky sense of humour, his encouragement, around the time he would have first brought Big Trouble in Little China home. The Friday ritual. He would have been exhausted after another long week, stop starts days, late microwaved dinners, money woes and all, but still, it was the weekend, and he heard it was meant to be good – his walled way of saying he just thought we might like it.
My dad is too old and reserved, every inch the traditional Irish Da, to be sharing 80s midnight movies of his own accord, but renting them for us was a way of reaching out to interests we had that he might not related to, but in the long run understood better than we gave him credit for. For him, even watching a movie is a self-indulgence rarely taken up, not when there’s more work to convince himself there needs to be done. On the rare occasions he will sit down long enough to take in a full feature, he would be much more comfortable with the more traditional morality and virility of a John Wayne or a Clint Eastwood joint – the very figures Jack Burton is designed to affectionately send up.
Kurt Russell has played figures of male power fantasies before, including for Carpenter, their stoicism and strength walking a perilous line between aspirational and fascistic. Jack Burton is all those things and more in his own imagination only, but the film’s other characters aren’t having it. They either know him better and blow it off, or don’t know him and don’t give him the time of day. He’s a no-nonsense attitude in an all-nonsense presentation. Seeing such an overt display of traditional masculinity in Jack Burton, cowboy macho confidence and confrontation blown up to the point of absurdity, there’s a faint but distinct trace of my dad in there, and all the assertive but aggressive men that would traditionally have gotten my heckles up. Perhaps that’s part of why the film was so hard for me to engage with at first. Yet realising that the character’s abrasiveness was tempered by comedy – that his aggression and over-confidence were what made him the comic relief, that they actually made him the foil to a quieter, more measured hero in Wang, drew me back into the film. I could appreciate the character more seeing him struggle and lose and keep on going. Similarly I’ve come to see my father, though far from perfect, as a man doing his best to make it through a difficult world, his own hang ups and shortcomings tripping up, but his determination, and his affection for the people closest to him, bringing him back up again.
Once you go along for the ride with Jack Burton, he becomes a lot more palatable, mirroring his own journey in the film where he eventually quits grumbling and goes along with the battle against Lo Pan, just another member of the ensemble. After spending the first half of the film bewildered and demanding explanations, by the end he’s downing magic potions without a second thought. The tour bus driver Egg Chen is a magician passing around smoking liquid? To hell with it, down the hatch, let’s see where this goes. Jack says it makes him feel kind of invincible, but the enduring image of the magic potion’s effects isn’t some incredible feat of strength, it’s Jack, Wang and company grinning at each other in an elevator. Jack is the one who kills Lo-Pan, but his victory owes as much to his willingness to cede to being a team player as it does to the quick reflexes that help him catch and return a knife into the sorcerer’s skull. He follows orders, let’s Wang – ultimately a much more accomplished fighter than ham-fisted Jack – take on the heavy hitters, and when he seizes his moment it’s an anti-climax he’s happy to let play out. Undercutting his boorish nature with comedy not only makes the character more endearing, in text it helps him win the day, triumphing through dumb luck and one-liners.
Contrast Jack with the film’s villain and the dangers of leaving such overt masculinity untampered is apparent. Lo-Pan is every bit as chauvinistic and arrogant as the American interloper he casually dismisses. Though his plan to marry the kidnapped Miao Yin is about lifting the curse that makes him immortal and incorporeal, he has a queasily eager sexual interest in her also. Lo-Pan is also a ruthless, immoral businessman by day, already well-placed financially to make the lives of ordinary people in Chinatown harder. While for Jack, being more humanised is a natural result of his struggles throughout the film, Lo-Pan becomes more human literally, lifting the ancient curse on him and becoming mortal in the film’s final act. Human again, Lo-Pan still wants to live as a god, exerting himself over others, never even considering that he can be at risk. His failure to account for his own vulnerability lands him a knife between the eyes, his little empire imploding in short order. Subtly, Jack learns, the villain doesn’t.
Jack’s flaws are present and accounted for, they influence how other characters perceive him and they have consequences, emasculating, injuring and embarrassing him. But they’re so outsized, and lead to such ridiculous outcomes, that they become comical, not condemnatory; it’s an affectionate but accurate read of fragile male ego. Playing these behaviours for laughs ends up making the character displaying them vulnerable, and as the story plays out, we can contrast these negatives against the positives Jack shows and appreciate the place he finds among the group. For all his overconfidence, ultimately Jack wins because he’s underestimated. He’s a joke outmatched in a fight with higher powers, but when he doesn’t have to think and when his opponent can’t even comprehend losing, one quick flash of physical skill and it’s all over.
My dad could be and still can be overbearing, but as a union rep, as a worker, as a parent going up against labyrinthian bureaucracy to get the best for his kids, he can be an unbeatable underdog, every inch a Carpenter character, grizzled and determined to go down swinging. As he’s gotten older, he has, verrrry gradually, become more opening and understanding, slightly more willing to hear opposing points of view. I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to share a glass of magic potion with him but we’re getting there.
Underneath the bright lights, special effects, explosions and dizzyingly rapid dialogue, Big Trouble in Little China serves as a reassuring space to recontextualise, re-evaluate and reckon with personalities, behaviours and situations that traditionally make me feel anxious and alienated. It also presents a world with sizeable dangers, bizarre as they are, and offers a vicarious hope that they can be conquered, all while having fun times with friends. The more I watch this goofy comfort food favourite, the more resonance beats out between the synth keys and kung fu kicks.
Better understanding himself and his world, the trucker hops back onto the Pork Chop Express. The cog still must keep turning at the end of the day. Still it’s not quite the same. Cutting the lone gunslinger act and being open to connecting with others, being loyal to Wang, deferring to Egg Shen, showing a degree, however stunted, of emotional engagement with Gracie, are what sets the stage for Jack Burton’s victory against improbable odds. The rain still beats down, the road is still dark and empty once again, there are monsters, grotesque and violent, lurking just out of sight even in the brief moments where we think we have respite. But in Little China, in friends, allies, community, love and vulnerability, there’s a place where we have a fighting chance. We may all be going through many hells, but together, we can shake the pillars of heaven.