Monday, November 23, 2015

John Carpenter, part XV: I've got a very positive attitude about this


Whipsmart genre-benders don't come much more fun than this; nor, unfortunately, much more difficult to discuss.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter, and John Carpenter
With Dennis Dun (Wang Chi), Kurt Russell (Jack Burton), Kim Cattrall (Gracie Law), Victor Wong (Egg Shen), Donald Li (Eddie), Kate Burton (Margo), Suzee Pai (Miao Yin), Carter Wong (Thunder), Peter Kwong (Rain), James Pax (Lightning), and James Hong (David Lo Pan)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Might as well start off by marching directly across this room to address the elephant crouching in the middle of it, because Big Trouble in Little China comes with a controversy, and that controversy turns upon Big Trouble's big question: is this movie a parody of racism and orientalism—or, is it just racist and orientalist?  And since the filmmakers push it right into the foreground, it's a question I can't simply ignore—even when it's both tedious and demoralizing to write a review that will change absolutely no one's opinion about the film, but could color someone's opinion about the reviewer.

So, on one hand, we should thank John Carpenter and his screenwriters for giving us such a complicated work.  On the other hand—thanks a lot.  But first things first: I love this fucking thing.  Which means that when I say I don't think that Big Trouble's racist or orientalist, I'm biased.

(Okay, okay.  It might be mildly orientalist.)

Naturally, what I think about this particular topic doesn't much matter (why, it matters even less than usual!).  But there doesn't appear to be a solid consensus within the Asian-American community in general (nor the Chinese-American community in particular) that Big Trouble represents an offense.  You'll find Asian-Americans who hate it, seeing it as a continuation of Hollywood's worst practices; and you'll find Asian-Americans who love it, seeing it as a barrier-breaking picture, offering varied and substantial Asian-American characters (one of whom even takes a white gal home, an occurrence still rare enough today to be notable).

Now you know good and well I meant Eddie.  Jeez.

Nevertheless, since Big Trouble's a romp through a fake-ass exotic world that was conjured up by a bunch of white people, it leaves itself an awful lot of opportunity to be insulting.  And yet the explicit goal of Big Trouble was to make a progressive movie about race that firstly paid tribute to Hong Kong's cinema of the fantastic, while simultaneously melding it with both the American Western and the screwball comedy, and then infusing the resulting mix-up with that ineffable, trademarked and always-uncanny John Carpenter Vibe.

Many of Big Trouble's troubles are inseparable from the tribute—like the convention that every important character either knows martial arts, or gets punished for not knowing them.  It's harder, though, to not look askance at the film's heap of poorly-sourced mythology, arising directly from its makers' eagerness to do a two-fisted pastiche—that clearly wasn't matched with a similar zeal for research.

Halloween III might be based on more fact, given that at least Druids existed.

But it's known that Carpenter himself rewrote the script, trying to sand off the anti-Asian edges.  A look at the deleted scenes reveals that even deep in post-production he remained devoted to the cause, killing lines that didn't work in the recital.  It's also useful to know that the film's nettlesome prologue—wherein Victor Wong tells Deep Throat how awesome the movie's only other white guy is—was something forced upon Carpenter by the studio.  Their concern was that audiences would get the "wrong idea" (read: the exactly right idea) about their picture.

The point is, folks were trying.  Even so, not everyone's going to agree they succeeded—and that's a fair reaction to have.  Movies, after all, are entertainment.  They're rarely more and should never be less.  If Big Trouble bothers you, that's its problem—not yours.  So, with all of that in mind, we arrive at what I see as a nearly-perfect comedy about Hollywood racism, ribboned through an already hugely-enjoyable pure adventure.

Disregarding that prologue (which remains a wonderful scene-setter anyway, thanks to Wong), we begin on the road with the Pork Chop Express, a gorgeous piece of logistical machinery plying the highways of America, piloted by our viewpoint-character, one Jack Burton.  Jack's ham radio operation—representing some of the most efficient characterization in a filmography whose signal quality is blisteringly-efficient characterization—immediately pins him down somewhere between "lovable loudmouth" and "obnoxious redneck."  It's here that we're introduced to Jack's penchant for untethered self-congratulation, and it'll be the mode he operates in throughout nearly the whole film—albeit with enough cracks in the facade to reveal it as a total pose, one he adopted long ago in lieu of a personality based on anything authentic, or even non-fictional.  But we'll learn that there remains a pretty decent guy, beneath all that endless bluster.  (Of course, it helps that Jack's bullshit is also exceptionally hilarious.)

When Jack arrives in San Francisco's Chinatown, we meet up with Wang Chi—young restauranteur, Jack's pal, our deuteragonist, and, most importantly, Big Trouble's actual hero.  An ill-considered night of drinking and gambling ensues between this couple of Californians, and as morning comes, Wang turns a thousand dollar debt into two, when he bets Jack double-or-nothing that he can cleave a bottle in twain.  All this accomplishes, though, is setting up Jack's only serious qualification for Real American Heroism: namely, the reflexes.

Why, it's almost like they might be making some kind of point.

We can intuit that Wang is a bit of a dick himself, since this was the morning he was supposed to greet his bride-to-be, Miao Yin, at the airport.  Jack tags along, inasmuch as Jack has an IOU that he'd like to see promptly repaid—and it's at the airport that things take a real and lasting turn for the adventurous.  Gangsters raid the terminal, seizing Miao Yin and carting her off to the White Tiger brothel, for quite nefarious and rather easily-guessed purposes.  Wang and Jack soon home in on her with the assistance of a local human rights attorney, the exposition-prone Gracie Law.  But, to their great surprise, she's kidnapped yet again—only this time for reasons that will take a little explanation, and by an agency that cannot be easily described as human evil.  Crucially, Miao Yin possesses a quality rarely found in East Asians—green eyes—and it turns out that the criminal kingpin of Chinatown, David Lo Pan, might just be an undead wizard, who happens to be under a curse which can only be lifted by the sacrifice of a green-eyed Chinese woman to an angry god.

The foregoing, mind you, represents an unholy streamlining of the plot.  Even though I've only gotten through about the first forty minutes of the movie, I've left out several terrifically important characters, like the Three Storms (whom Jack incorrectly and nearly implausibly identifies as kung fu fighters on wires, because Jack is an idiot), as well as the sorcerer Egg Shen, who intends to use this opportunity to bring his ancient vendetta with Lo Pan to a satisfactory end.  In any event, the summary version of the rest of it is that it's up to Wang, Jack, and their allies to infiltrate Lo Pan's increasingly-literal Chinatown underworld, rescue Miao Yin, and somehow defeat an evil ghost and all his gods and monsters.  And because this is a comedy, they fuck up, a lot.  But the man with the most egregiously poor ratio of fucking-up to accomplishing, well, damn near anything belongs to Jack, whose ineptitude is severe enough that he knocks himself unconscious for the first half of the big fight by misusing a firearm.

Nope, no commentary here.

The single most intoxicating thing about Big Trouble is its nearly-terrifying pace.  The film manifests as a lightning-quick rumble that, for 100 minutes, barrels straight through John Lloyd and April Ferry's production and costume design (and I'll admit that the design is probably the most arch-orientalist thing about the movie, even if I won't concede that it's anything less than gorgeous—but if you want to know my favorite costuming decision, it's Jack's tank-top, emblazoned with a samurai and a rising sun, in Chinatown, because Jack is Mr. Sensitivity).

As a result of this emphasis on speed, it occasionally verges on incoherence, although in this it's only taking after its genre ancestors on both sides, leading us to a seriously vital issue: how Big Trouble stacks up against its Hong Kongese inspirations.  Well, in one crucial regard, it's a qualified failure: namely, the martial arts.  Outside of one early fight, there's little commitment to athletic spectacle in Big Trouble—Dennis Dun is no martial artist, and you surely won't walk away believing he is.  This isn't to say the action is lacking—far from it.  In terms of nonsensical magical war, it's certainly more enjoyable than any Harry Potter movie.  But it never captures the gleeful wire-fu physicality of, say, The Legendary Weapons of China, content instead to be a less-slothful version of something like The Executioner.

Yet this part is so rad.

Which brings us back to its screwball pedigree.  Carpenter's insistence on a hypersonic Hawksian rhythm keeps everything moving almost too fast to process—even when our heroes are very clearly running in circles.  It could've easily become wearisome.  After all, actual Howard Hawks movies sometimes come in that flavor, too.

Luckily, Carpenter keeps the rapid-fire exposition and quick stings from ever becoming a cacophony.  He has a lot of help, of course, from the best ensemble he ever put together—and if I had more room, I'd tell you exactly how and why Dun, Wong, James Hong, Kim Cattrall, Donald Li, and Kate Burton are each ecstatically good.  But there's no sense denying the nature of this beast, and as much as Jack ain't the hero, Kurt Russell is definitely the star.

That's your best angle if you want to condemn Big Trouble, and yet it presents a conundrum: if the very reason for its existence is to poke fun at Hollywood's legion of white saviors, then that means you can't escape putting a white savior front-and-center, even if it's just so he can be properly mocked.  (And, yes, this goes right down to Carpenter and Dean Cundey's otherwise-impeccable compositions, which privilege Russell over Dun—although the extent to which this is simply the inevitable outcome of Jack's own peremptory character can't be overlooked, either.)  Thus Dun, constrained with his more conventional underdog badass, winds up partially overshadowed by the cartoonish buffoon who can't even pronounce his friend's name correctly.  That doesn't mean Dun's less-flamboyant performance isn't just as essential to Big Trouble's comic scheme—only that Dun is tasked to find ways to be funny more subtle than getting hit on the head by falling masonry.

You know, like how Indiana Jones is subtle.

Still, Russell's frame-filling breadth can't help but draw the most attention.  Exchanging his half-parody Clint Eastwood impression from Escape for a full-parody rendition of John Wayne, Russell's macho swagger—backed up with nothing but foolhardy bravado—is the set-up for the punchline of all the best jokes in the movie.  It culminates in Big Trouble's finest read, "What will come out no more?!", referring to a dispatched monster, and delivered in a tone that suggests what Jack wants most right now is to go find a corner where he can cry.  Russell's performance is as perfect a send-up of American dudery as any 1980s studio film could produce; and it's in Russell's performance that a genuine arc for Jack emerges, where he leaves Chinatown with a lot to process and a new sense of his own limitations.

As I run out of space, I'm left with a pile of critical odds-and-ends: my feeling that the post-climactic escape is a little "off," structurally; that it would be nicer if the movie had traded its green-eye fetish for a mystic marker less racially-charged; that leaving in the line about Gracie's birth within the bounds of China would've plugged an outrageous plot hole that opens when Lo Pan finds a use for the rather less-rare Caucasian woman with green eyes; that Big Trouble's treatment of sexual slavery is blithe, yet given a quiet little moment of nuance that kind of redeems it, when Jack stupidly asks what the personnel turnover's like at a brothel; basically, that the whole movie, racist or not, is sexist in ways that "1986" is barely a sufficient answer for; and that the annoyingly Dun-free promotional artwork is by far the most patently nasty thing about it.

But I'll end instead by concluding that Big Trouble in Little China remains perhaps the single cleverest JC movie there is, and easily one of his warmest-hearted.  It was both ahead of its time—and, somehow, forever behind it.

Score: 9/10

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