Thursday, March 1, 2018

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Watched:  02/27/2018
Format:  Alamo Ritz
Viewing:  Oh, probably the 12th or 13th, at least
Decade:  1980's

Oh, what to say about Big Trouble in Little China (1986)?

I'll argue that Big Trouble in Little China is both a sort of litmus test and a joke grenade.

As a litmus test - You won't meet that many people who are like "oh, @#$% yeah!  Big Trouble in Little China!", but you will meet  them, they exist, and I am one of them, and if you are as well, we can hang some time. Even Jamie doesn't really like the movie, but true love is accepting the glaring faults of someone because they have so many other positives.

I'm not sure if "joke grenade" is just something my brother and I made up (I know we've used the term since high school, so I've lost the source), but it's something you lob out there, the audience looks at it, says "what is this?" and then the gag clicks and you get the laugh ten seconds later.  A delayed reaction.

And I think for a lot of people with zero expectations, if you come into the movie cold, Big Trouble in Little China feels like an 80's actioner, and not a good one.  It stars Kurt Russell, who previously worked for director John Carpenter in The Thing and Escape from New York.  At the time of the film's making, mid-budget movies looked like this, and might try some things for added flavor - like martial arts and/or supernatural-type FX on a budget.  And they all starred tough-guy All American without a lot of book knowledge, but through gumption and grit he masters the scenario and saves the day.

That sorta happens in this movie, but mostly it's Carpenter and Russell (and the writers who cooked the thing up) seemingly having a good time playing with tropes of genre films.  It sure feels like a straight 80's action movie, but it's self-aware but not as aggressive about it as Last Action Hero.  It's not here to draw attention to the gag, it's there to just be off kilter from what you were expecting.  To me, Kim Cattrall is one of the funniest parts of the movie, and clearly got exactly how Gracie Law fit into the picture.*

By 1986, the Yellow Peril movies like Fu Manchu were mostly gone from American pop culture.  But martial arts and supernatural movies were both quite popular.   Certain elements of the diabolical David Lo Pan do feel like they're right out of one of the Boris Karloff flicks (yeah.  Karloff.  It's a whole thing, man.).  In 2018, the movie probably feels a bit like it's riding a fine line in regards to being offensive to Chinese people or Chinese Americans.  I mean - I guess.  The only person portrayed as a dope is Jack Burton, and maybe marginally annoying, Gracie Law, the joke being: everyone but Jack understands what is happening and how to deal with it.  So, your mileage will vary.  But I think anyone looking for a deeply respectful investigation of Chinese and Chinese American culture is going to be disappointed.

Watching the movie again in the theater for the first time in a while (I think I watched it at the Alamo about a decade ago), I was really struck by how fast the movie moves.  There's some admirable narrative economy to the film once we hit the airport, maybe too much exposition, but that's played for comic effect for the most part.  The pacing does keep you on your toes as a viewer, and mixed with the maze of the Lo Pan fortress for characters to navigate, it can make for an interesting ride, funny or not.

The movie may not have the best sword fighting and martial arts, and may hint at it more than it executes truly great martial arts movie combat - but for the era, it's actually not half bad.

As with so many other Carpenter movies, he scored it himself.  And... well, it's a Carpenter score and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Curiously, the screenplay - perhaps a bit messy from a structural standpoint, but with some of the best lines of any 80's flick - wasn't by the two guys listed as the writers.  W.D. Richter was responsible for the near-final screenplay but didn't get the screenwriting credits, just an "adapted by".  And while the name may not ring any bells, this may make some sense:

W.D. Richter had, two years previous, directed a little film called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.  So.

I sincerely hope actor James Hong - who has been great in so many things whether they deserved it or not - knows how much people love his role as Lo Pan.  He seems like he's having a hell of a time as both "creepy old man" and "7 foot tall Lo Pan".  Similarly, props to Victor Wong, who manages to make every scene he's in way better than it needs to be and gives it the feeling of surprise.

Playing the actual hero of the movie, Dennis Dun gets the semi-thankless role of the actual, competent straight man in the film.  He does get some good martial arts scenes in, and he's definitely likeable and buyable as a guy who hustled his way to this point and is singularly focused on his love.

We don't actually talk much about Kurt Russell's versatility - but he can kind of do whatever you throw at him.  And while there's no shortage of comedies out there proving his chops, this is a sweet spot for Russell - a guy who has played the macho heroes who can just as quickly turn that on its head without it feeling like a stunt or put on.

I mentioned Kim Cattrall above, and I'm gonna cut it short here, but...  yeah.  Never a mark against a movie in my book.

It'd be a mistake to oversell Big Trouble in Little China.  It is not everyone's cup of tea.  And that's okay.  There are plenty of us out there.  So...

Here's to the Army and the Navy, and the battles they have won
Here's to America's colors, the colors that never run

May the wings of liberty never lose a feather

*- and this is the first time I've thought about it, but Cattrall is a comedic actor when you go over her resume.  85% of the stuff I've even seen her in has been comedies, and she holds her own even against whatever was going on in Police Academy

In conclusion, I'll let Crow T. Robot cover this for me


J.S. said...

"It'd be a mistake to oversell Big Trouble in Little China"?!?!?! I don't know you anymore...

The League said...

Well, I hear you. This doesn't reflect my opinion of the movie so much as I live with someone who I am aware is a flawed human being who doesn't quite grasp the majesty of what the movie is and I try to be kind.

Paul Toohey said...

This movie fits in with my theory that each John Carpenter movie after Halloween is better than the last. Maybe through his whole filmography up to a point.

Didn’t we watch this at Chris and Alison’s house a few years back?

The League said...

Yeah, we did. I think they were a little horrified by how much I loved the flick.

I haven't seen enough Carpenter to make a call on this theory. Gonna try Prince of Darkness soon.

Paul Toohey said...

I've been trying to watch the George A Romero films I've missed seeing. I need to do the same with Carpenter next.