On Big Trouble in Little China (Carpenter, 1988)
John Carpenter is better known for films like Halloween, The Thing, and Escape from New York. However, of all of his distinguished filmography, including quite a few horror classics, this is by far my favorite film he’s made. I’m reasonably sure I first saw it when I was little on TV as a special Saturday afternoon showing (from one of the UHF stations in LA.) I own it on DVD and have seen it a few times since then. If you haven’t seen this classic of Kurt Russell, martial arts, the 80s, and rampant Orientalism, do yourself a favor and rent it.
What I love about this film is how simultaneously conventional and unconventional it is, and in this article I plan to discuss some reasons why this film disrupts narrative expectations yet doesn’t remain jarring.
1) Jack Burton: Heroic Clown
The first sequence, taking place in a lawyer’s office, shows Egg Shen (Victor Wong) talking to his lawyer, and when pressed about the whereabouts of Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his truck, Shen angrily asks “Oh, will you leave him alone?!” This, combined with his rugged CB radio talk, starts to position Burton as who we imagine to be the hero. And we occupy Burton’s position as a “reasonable man who has just seen some very unreasonable things.” Yet is Jack Burton the hero of Big Trouble…? I would argue he isn’t.
For all of Jack Burton’s macho posturing (“And if we aren’t back by morning, call the President,”) he is actually the amiable comic relief to the competent and knowledgeable Wang Chi (Dennis Dun,) who initially due to his slight build and ethnicity would seem consigned to the opposite role to muscular action hero Russell. When escaping from the Wing Kong exchange, Jack Burton fires three shots from his machine gun and ends up with a piece of drywall on his head. His confusion and inability to believe what’s going on (he spends a long time confused about the nature of Lo Pan,) and his later gung ho acceptance of Taoist black magic and sorcery (“A six demon bag? Sensational, what’s in it, Egg?”) both convey a comical exuberance. But he does little to aid in almost every fight, he is almost always knocked over, outclassed, and beaten up, save for the final battle, where he miraculously and unexpectedly kills Lo Pan, bringing back his repeated line “It’s all in the reflexes.” He’s powered primarily by worming his way into Gracie Law’s Kim Catrall, in one of her four non-Sex and the City roles I can name [the other three being Police Academy, Porky’s, and Mannequin,]) pants and acquiring his truck. He has no real motivation, no real reason to be there other than the most superficial.
2) Escalating Exotic Bizareness
Although we get a taste of it in this first sequence with Egg Shen’s lightning and the discussion of a ball of green flame, things get progressively stranger and stranger. At first, Jack Burton’s world appears fairly mundane. The initial kidnapping scene at the airport features Chinese street punks with switchblades to martial artist gangs streetfighting. Then the Three Storms arrive, armed with tonfa, extending monkey paws, and what look like (I’m not kidding) spinning blades attack to his middle fingers, and Lo Pan makes his first appearance disappearing in front of Jack Burton’s truck. Pretty soon we’re lost in a world of Chinese black magic and the occult and the mythical fleshless emperor Lo Pan.
3) “Shut up, Mister Burton! You Were Not Brought About this World to ‘Get It!’”
The dialogue is very fast-paced, almost akin to Howard Hawks films of the 40s, especially the verbal sparring between Jack Burton and Gracie Law. There are phrases like “This is gonna take crackerjack timing,” and “It’s all in the reflexes” and “Indeed!” All in all the writing from a dialogue point of view seems quaint, almost hokey.
But consider for a moment the scene showing the initial confrontation between Lo Pan and Jack and Wang. They’re tied up in wheelchairs after having been caught and tortured. This is the big scene where we get the first real explanation of the plot and Lo Pan’s motivations (he in fact blatantly spells it out.) But the setting, the backdrop, the dialogue (including Lo Pan’s overly excited “indeed!” and “Now this really pisses me off to no end,”) all of it feels off.
5) “You will never come out again?!”
“What?! What will never come out again!”
Before sneaking into Lo Pan’s fortress, Egg Shen throws exploding marbles at a demon coming out of a tunnel, screaming this line and forcing Burton to make the same response. This is never explained and never elaborated beyond this small scene.
“Hold on, hold on, I’m feeling a bit like an outsider here...”
So, if Big Trouble in Little China is drastically against many traditional narrative constructs (the positioning of the audience with the hero, a changing set of audience expectations, anachronous dialogue and bizarre set pieces, unexplained narrative ruptures like “You will never come out again!”) how does it still work? How does this narrative provide pleasure in the way that traditionally arises from clinging to traditional narrative norms? It’s not in these ruptures purely as surprises, but as pleasant surprises that gives their pleasure. The variations are all relatively minor that they surprise us out of the average narrative filmic experience, but not so jarring as to produce effects of disorientation. That is the pleasure, or at least one of the pleasures, I gain from this film.