Oriental Mentalism: John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – Blu-ray review
Big? Little? We’re watching what now? With a gleeful Carpenter at the helm, you might find yourself suitably discombobulated. Just enjoy the ride.
Big Trouble In Little China
(John Carpenter, 1986)
There’s a scene towards the end of Big Trouble In Little China where the characters stop to drink a magic potion that – they’re told – will enable them to see things that nobody else can see, and do things that nobody else can see. This isn’t exactly news; this is the kind of film where you wonder if the cast and crew weren’t whacked out on some kind of experimental drug, and watching the film often feels like we’ve taken it too.
The film’s provenance is certainly wayward. Originally the screenplay was a mix of cowboy action and Oriental mysticism – Western meets Eastern – that nobody liked but rushed to make anyway, modernising the story to steal a march on the similarly themed The Golden Child. John Carpenter was hired primarily because he was fast, not due to any particular affinity for the material.
Yet it’s interesting how well this warps to Carpenter’s worldview. Nowadays, when cult auteurs are given mainstream projects, the filmmaker’s talents are harnessed in aid of the producers’ vision. Here, control is ceded to Carpenter, and his vision proves to be a wild, weird one, full of sly wit and self-deprecation. At first, it looks like a bad movie, until you realise Carpenter is up-ending the idea of a bad movie to stuff his full of his favourite things. Hence Carpenter’s decision to direct his cast like Howard Hawks – all rapid-fire screwball banter – and Kurt Russell spending the film doing a fun impersonation of John Wayne.
It thus becomes the third in a loose trilogy of Carpenter films where Russell’s Everyman snark is the audience’s entrance point into crazy town. Except where Escape To New York and The Thing were largely serious, here Carpenter and his star have tongues firmly in cheek. There’s an argument that Russell is subverting the usual white man’s heroism by being largely ineffectual and dumb-ass compared to his more adept partner Wang. That said, for all the positivity of the casting – the vast majority of the actors are Asian – this still cleaves to a dodgy depiction of China as something exotic and otherwordly. It’s hard to see it getting (re)made today without some major alterations.
Nor would it be worth it without Carpenter, whose heart is so obviously in the right place that it’s hard to criticise it too much. Counting his made-for-TV biopic Elvis, this was Carpenter’s tenth feature, nearly as many films as Kubrick made over five decades but Carpenter was still a young gun in his thirties. The result is a rare combination of technical bravura and childlike glee, and Carpenter is basically loving the experience of shooting martial arts and special effects. Just when you think you’ve clocked it, he pushes the surrealism an extra notch (watch out for the killer giant fish that pops out of a cave, eats an extra and is never seen again) or lets Russell crack wise with Kim Catrall in the middle of fending off another kung fu attack.