Big Trouble in Little China and the Cult of Carpenter
24 November 2021
LUMI programmer Fionntán Macdonald writes about the cult following of Big Trouble in Little China, the first ever LUMI Late screening.
It can be difficult to think of a film more appropriate to hold "Cult" status than John Carpenter's genre bending fever dream Big Trouble in Little China (1986). It certainly doesn't have the biggest following and it likely doesn't have the most passionate fans (a few diehard Carpenter buffs not-withstanding). It is, however, perhaps the perfect outreach piece to the un-sanctified masses from one of cinema's greatest cult filmmakers.
If you've spent enough time around film fans you will doubtless have encountered a Carpenter-evangelist: hell bent, and heaven sent to tell you exactly why you NEED to watch everything this iconoclast has laid his hands on. If you’ve seen one of his works and remain tragically agnostic, then Big Trouble… may be perfect for you as it artfully encapsulates his style of grind house pastiche while delivering big fun simultaneously.
This “action/adventure/comedy/kung fu/ghost story/monster movie,” as Carpenter pithily described it, is a medley of influences and genre filmmaking conventions: all delightfully subverted with sloppy brilliance.
Kurt Russell’s roguish turn as Jack Burton centres the film with a John Wayne swagger, but skilfully subverts all expectations with a brilliantly comic take on the All-American action hero. Burton is not what you would call capable. In fact, he manages to bungle most of his big heroic moments, falling back on the actual expertise of his supposed side-kick Wang (Dennis Dun), the perfect Kato to Burton’s Green Hornet.
Wang manages to save the day repeatedly and his fiancé’s kidnapping sets the film’s loose plot in motion, showing that he is intended as the real hero of the piece. In fact, the film’s seeming fixation on Burton as the central figure can be attributed largely to studio meddling. Even the opening scene was a late-stage tack on which sees a secondary character attribute essentially everything that follows to the altruistic bad-assery of Burton. This unfortunately undercuts the genius of the interplay here.
Burton is a hilariously perceptive take on the traditional American hero: all bluster and big gesture with very little tangible contribution. He is the perfect Reaganite hero in that his blue collar confidence and Yankee bombast are a façade masking the general ineptitude of his actions. The film strikes an interesting balance between comedy and mysticism: treating its lore with absolute seriousness while allowing the consequences of its magic system to play out with sometimes farcical body horror. And while the filmmakers offer up some classic ‘80s practical effects it’s more akin to prime Paul Verhoeven than Carpenter’s own masterpiece effect film The Thing (1982).
In fact, Carpenter was largely dissatisfied with many elements of the film’s production; including but not limited to the finished effects and the aforementioned studio meddling. This sentiment was reflected in critics’ relative disdain for the film at the time. A particularly bad review by Siskel and Ebert illustrates the critical consensus in 1986, that the film is too focused on its technical elements and not enough on its characters: “two thumbs down”. Ebert also noted in a later review that the film trades in some fairly off-putting stereotypes associated with Asian communities.
Despite my love for this film, I must admit some of the above elements can be unpalatable for the average viewer. You may, for instance, balk at the sight of the Fu Manchu sporting Lo Pan, the film’s primary villain, who is nonetheless brought to gleefully malevolent life by criminally under-appreciated character actor James Hong. Yes, the portrayal of the villains is limited verging on insensitive, and the character of Wang’s fiancé could best be described as a MacGuffin in a silk dress. Yet it never feels like the Asian characters are the butt of the joke here, or unfairly disparaged by the filmmakers. Rather the portrayals on screen are a tribute to the pulp fiction and wave of martial arts fantasy films that preceded them.
No, this is not a perfect film: far from it. Where Big Trouble in Little China succeeds is big spectacle, kitschy charm, and an overwhelming sense of fun.
In many ways this film is a post-modern trailblazer, barrelling down on the audience's expectations like a 16-wheeler with the bullish Jack Burton at the wheel; and all the plot swerves and leaps in logic can't run this cinematic joy off the road.