A Couple on Carpenter #1: Big Trouble in Little China - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
6Jul/120

A Couple on Carpenter #1: Big Trouble in Little China

We've got a new feature this week on Can't Stop the Movies! I was so taken by Amanda and Andrew's “A Couple on Kubrick” series that I thought, “Why let them have all the fun?” So for the next few weeks (read: until we get sick of it) my wife, Michelle, will be joining me for an entirely original segment we like to call:

“A Couple on Carpenter”

We're kicking things off this week with a look at John Carpenter's 1986 action-comedy: Big Trouble in Little China. The film stars Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, a loud-mouthed trucker who is conscripted by his gambling buddy and sometimes friend, Wang, (Dennis Dun) in saving Wang's future wife, and all of Chinatown, from the evil, undead sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong) and his posse of kung-fu gangsters and elemental gods. The film co-stars Kim Cattrall as a nosy journalist and Victor Wong as the mysterious Egg Shen; bus driver by day, wizard by night.

*Note: I'll be abbreviating Big Trouble in Little China as “Big Trouble” throughout this review. I'm not confusing it with the 2002 Dave Barry/Tim Allen film, I'm just lazy.

Jacob: I've seen this film several times, but this was your first time, correct honeygrahms?

Michelle: I had seen bits and pieces of it as a kid when it was shown as Fox's Saturday-night movie, but never the whole thing. Also, don't call me any cute names. We are beyond cute names.

Jacob: Noted. Now I know we've watched a few other Carpenter films together. Halloween, Escape from New York, um, The Thing.

Michelle: They Live...

Jacob: Right. So you've got an idea about the general tone of the, let's say, iconic Carpenter films. What always struck me about Big Trouble how different it is from all those films we just mentioned. Big Trouble adheres to your standard 80s action tropes, to be sure, but it's really more of a comedy.

Michelle: Yeah, I agree.

Jacob: And not a black comedy, like, say They Live is, or Escape from New York is in parts, but just straight-up comedy.

Michelle: Yeah. I don't know if I'd even say it's an “80's action movie” as much as a “kung-fu comedy.”

Jacob: Like Jackie Chan's stuff?

Michelle: ...yeah. Yeah, like that.

Jacob: Back in the 80s, Hollywood had this love affair with all things Asian. I say “Asian” because it really was a hodgepodge of Japanese and Chinese cultures thrown together under the banner of “Asian.”

Michelle: Oh yeah, and no one ever noticed...

Jacob: Well that leads me to my other question, 'cause I know you've got an actual interest in Eastern cultures: Do you think that Big Trouble was a, how to put this, “positive” portrayal of Chinese-American culture in the 80s?

Michelle: ...seriously? Oh, you are being serious. Uh, okay! I...guess?

Jacob: Well, your typical 80s action/kung-fu film typically followed some buff white guy who fought a bunch of other white guys dressed kinda-sorta like ninjas. And he usually had some goofy Asian guy who'd teach him all of his “ancient Chinese secrets” that only he could master, despite not actually being even vaguely Asian.

Michelle: Yeah, that sounds like a pretty sweeping generalization, but I know the stereotype you mean. I suppose it was a more “positive” portrayal of Asian-Americans in film. I mean, they were all way smarter than any of the white characters.

Jacob: That's a really good point, swee..uh, MICHELLE. I mean, Jack Burton is an egotistical dolt. Throughout the film, all of his accomplishments boil down to sheer luck or just being in the right spot at the right time (or reflexes).

Michelle: Yeah, how many fights does he sit out? Or knock himself out for? Or just stand there incompetently while Wang cleans up for him?

Jacob: Exactly! But as I was saying, so's Gracie (Kim Cattrall) and her friend Margo (Kate Burton). Margo is a neurotic mess who's only modes seem to be “frantic” and “clueless.”

Michelle: And Gracie is self-important and pushy. She's as much of an ego maniac as Jack in some ways, she just has a different way of showing it.

Jacob: Yeah, they're all kind of goofy, one-note characters. By comparison, the Chinese characters in the film are pretty fleshed out. Hell, even Lo Pan has more a more complex motivation than our so-called “hero.” Maybe Carpenter was trying to do a switch-a-roo on the audience: Make the Chinese characters the well-rounded characters, the protagonists, and the white people are just some bumbling stereotypes who traipse along with them. That seems fittingly subversive in a Carpenter sort of way.

Michelle: You might be onto something there. Then again, what about those guys dressed in kung-fu gear with red and yellow sashes having a big brawl with fucking swords in the middle of modern-day Chinatown? Maybe you could argue the guys in yellow were wearing it as some sort of religious garb; a funeral tradition or something. But then those guys in red appeared...

Jacob: Maybe that's how things really were in the 80s? Have you ever been to Chinatown?

Michelle: Yes. Several different Chinatowns, actually. And I never saw a bunch of guys in gis, or whatever the Chinese equivalent is called, having a kung-fu hustle.

Jacob: Well maybe you just didn't know where to look.

Michelle: Maybe (*Unintelligible muttering*) Oh, what about the Chinese girl with green eyes?

Jacob: Miao Yen (Suzee Pai)?

Michelle: Did you actually remember that, or did you look it up?

Jacob: I remember it, but I have seen this film, like, 20 times.

Michelle: I don't think she even had a speaking part. I think she was just there to be a damsel in distress.

Jacob: You know, I think you're right.

Michelle: So much for your “well-rounded Chinese-American characters” theory.

Jacob: Alright, it's not a perfect theory. I can admit it. Right. Any other observations?

Michelle: For an 80s film, there was a real lack of training montages.

Jacob: You know, I never thought of that before. That does seem odd.

Michelle: I liked how Jack and Gracie don't get together at the end. That was a pretty big departure from your standard action-flick. I guess that's some more of Carpenter messing with your expectations. Jack isn't really the hero of the film and he doesn't get the girl.

Jacob: It's like the opposite of any given action-flick in the 80s.

Michelle: Pretty much. Has Kurt Russell ever played a hero in a Carpenter film, or is he always an anti-hero?

Jacob: You could probably make an argument for The Thing, but by-and-large, I'd agree with that statement.

Michelle: I have to wonder about ancient curses. Why would a way to break a curse involve marrying a girl then murdering her? It's not like Lo Pan gave a fuck about the women, he just wanted to be human again.

Jacob: Gods were fickle in those days, and sacrifice was all the rage. Or so I'm told.

Michelle: And he was waiting for a girl with green eyes for, what, 2000 years? 3000 years? I mean, I know he thought it had to be a Chinese girl with green eyes, but Gracie was deemed acceptable, so ethnicity clearly didn't matter. You'd think that in all that time he might have at least considered trying to use a non-Chinese girl with green eyes just to see if it worked.

Jacob: So why did he grab Gracie? Do you think it was a comment on cultural and ethnic equality? That our skin color or our racial heritage don't really matter in the end? Or do you think they just needed another girl in peril?

Michelle: I think you're thinking about it too much. I think Lo Pan was just too stupid to try. Come to think of it, his henchmen weren't much brighter. I mean, it wasn't very hard to sneak into his warehouse/secret lair. All of his traps were pretty easy to escape from. And what was with that hairy monster-man? Did he even attack anyone, besides kidnapping Gracie?

Jacob: And pop out of the truck at the end? Come to think of it, no. I think he was mostly there just to have a cool monster. What self-respecting undead wizard doesn't want to have a cool monster henchman to show around?

Michelle: So, really, this film is less of an action movie and more of a campy comedy. The “hero” bumbles in and out of the plot without doing much of anything...

Jacob: He does kill Lo Pan.

Michelle...He could have just gotten lucky. And Lo Pan could have gotten over his curse years ago if he'd just bothered to think outside the box.

Jacob: I think you're severely underestimating Jack Burton's reflexes, dear, but I mostly agree with what you said. Awesome. So, as campy, action-comedies go, how would you rate your first, full viewing of Big Trouble in Little China?

Michelle: Enjoyable.

Jacob:...That's it?

Michelle: What? You want me to say it got me all hot and bothered, or something? I'm not Andrew.

Jacob: True. So, that'll wrap things up for this week. What have we got for next week?

Michelle: Next week we'll be watching the 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's Chirstine. I read the book, but I've never seen the film.

Jacob: Me either. This'll be new for both of us. Until next time, folks!

Posted by Jacob

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