Big Trouble in Little China / TK
Hangover Theater | August 15, 2008 | Comments ()
You spent the night making questionable decisions. You drank enough cheap, watered down beer to drown a camel. Your eyes are red, your head is pounding, your throat feels like you swallowed burning sand. You’d swear that a cat took a shit in your mouth. You guzzled a 32 ounce Gatorade before bed, hoping the hydration would save you. Instead it looks like someone vomited up fruit punch-scented blood in your bathroom sink. You don’t know what time it is. You don’t want to know what time it is. Right now, all you know is pain. You need redemption. Salvation. Who can save you from this brutal, aching tumult?
Jack Burton, that’s who. He saved the world from a 2,000 year-old evil sorcerer — he sure as hell can save your sorry ass. Jack Burton took on the Three Storms. He’s fought monsters and warriors of legend. He never drives faster than he can see, and besides… it’s all in the reflexes.
You see, Jack Burton’s done it all before. Long ago, he was just a simple trucker - perhaps a little brash, perhaps a little arrogant, but a tough, worldly traveler making his way through this crazy world in the cab of his truck, The Pork Chop Express. He made what he thought would be a routine stop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, to visit his friend Wang Chi. He and Wang spent the night doing what guys do - gambling, drinking and telling tall tales. Jack won himself a little money, and despite a rough night on the town, he’s happy. Wang persuaded him to come with him to pick up his bride-to-be, Miao Yin, who’s flying in from China. But before they two could be reunited, Miao was kidnapped by members of the nefarious and deadly Wing Kong, a brutal street gang battling for dominance of the streets of Chinatown.
Reason # 1 why Jack Burton can save you: He doesn’t leave a friend in trouble. From what we can tell, these are the events that followed: While he was a little reluctant to get involved, and sure, part of the reason was that Wang still owed him money, he agreed to stick with him to track down his girl. However, Jack soon discovered that there’s more to the Wing Kong, to his friend Wang, to the world as he knows it, than he ever possibly suspected. Try to stay with me here, because this part’s important: The Wing Kong were actually the strongarm troops of David Lo Pan, an eccentric local recluse who’s vying for power over San Francisco’s underworld. Lo Pan, however, was more than just a wannabe crime boss — he was also a 2,000 year old cursed undead sorcerer! Lo Pan, that evil bastard, needs a green-eyed girl to sacrifice so he can lift the ancient curse placed upon him and come back to rule the world. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.
Reason # 2 why Jack Burton can save you: No matter how crazy shit gets, he keeps fighting. So when Lo Pan sent in his mystical emissaries, the strange and deadly Three Storms (Thunder, Lightning and Rain), Jack may not have understood everything that was going on, and may have been freaked out when they cut down the Chang Sings (the sworn enemies of the Wing Kong) during an epic battle between to the two gangs. But that doesn’t mean he backs down. No sir, not ol’ Jack Burton. Especially not after the damn Wing Kongs stole his precious Pork Chop Express. Instead, Jack and Wang went back to Wang’s restaurant to regroup. It was there that Jack met the man who taught him the truth about the world beneath us, the venerable and powerful Egg Shien. Egg had been Lo Pan’s arch rival for centuries, doing what he can to keep the evil one in check, all while under the guise of a simple Chinatown tour bus driver. At the same time, Gracie Law, a local lawyer got involved (she and a reporter were investigating the Wing Kong’s trafficking and prostitution ring), only to be eventually captured by Lo Pan’s minions as well. Eventually, Jack, Wang, Egg and the Chang Sings all headed to the underground lair of Lo Pan to face him and his evil forces in a titanic battle that literally decided the fate of the world.
That’s the short version. Fortunately for us, the saga of Jack Burton and company was immortalized by director John Carpenter in his 1986 film cleverly titled, Big Trouble in Little China. Based on Egg Shien’s account of the events given to his lawyer, Big Trouble in Little China has evolved into a clever, campy cult classic that is adored by fans across the world. In it, Jack Burton is played with a tough-guy, somewhat bumbling charm by Kurt Russell, in what may well be my favorite performance of his. The cast is a mix of the currently famous (Kim Cattrall of “Sex and the City” fame plays Gracie Law) and the never-heard-from-agains, such as Dennis Dun as Wang and Victor Wong as Egg Shien (Wong, other than an unfortunate run in the Three Ninjas movies, has not exactly stumbled into the limelight). David Lo Pan is played with cackling, hand-twisting glee by James Hong, in an impressive set of makeup jobs that allow him to appear as both the ancient, withered old man in a wheelchair, or the powerful, near-invincible sorcerer.
Let’s be clear: Big Trouble in Little China was not an Oscar contender. Despite the critically important events that it’s based on, it’s perhaps the mother of all modern B-movies. It’s loud, glitzy, glorious fun, full of hammy performances and cheese-tastic special effects. It’s a serious subject, to be sure, but it’s played off with a sense of wonderment and goofy affection that you can’t help but be drawn into its world. Big Trouble in Little China has no aspirations other than to entertain the living shit out of you, and it succeeds. Russell’s portrayal of Burton is one of my favorite action movie performances ever, if for no other reason that it skewers action stars so completely. Instead of being a superhuman mega-hero, he’s a guy with a big mouth, a tough persona, and more balls than brains… or brawn. His personality is demonstrated perfectly when, at the beginning of the final battle, he fires his gun in the air with a triumphant war cry… only to have the bullets hit the ceiling and a piece of the ceiling knocks him unconscious for much of the fight.
The other cast members chew their roles up with equal delight. Cattrall plays Ms. Law with a soap opera-esque theatricality that borders on the ridiculous, exemplified by the scene where she bursts into Wang’s restaurant and proclaims, “Don’t panic, it’s only me, Gracie Law!” It’s the type of dialogue that sounds painfully cheesy, but manages to be perfect in execution. Victor Wong plays the role of wily old coot with a heart of gold, and complements the grinning, maniacal evil of Hong’s Lo Pan beautifully.
The action sequences in Big Trouble in Little China are similarly simultaneously entertaining and ridiculous. Frequently filmed with dozens of actors rumbling around, throwing each other through windows and flying around on wires, it’s silly, chaotic, and completely satisfying. The first of the great battles, where the Chang Sings and Wing Kongs face off in an alley while Jack and Wang are helpless observers, is hilariously full of poorly-executed, over-dramatic martial arts moves (not to mention the glory of one Al Leong), as well as a couple of extras who I’m pretty sure aren’t even Asian, let alone Chinese. Full of drawn out “HI-YAAAA’s” and slow-turning spinning kicks, it doesn’t hold a candle to real martial arts scenes. Therein lies the beauty of Big Trouble in Little China - it revels in its B-movieness, enjoying each goofy moment, taking action stereotypes and slapping them until they beg for mercy. The climactic final scene (the one where Burton is knocked out cold) features magic, explosions, sword fights that take place as the combatants fly through the air, what looks like a Yeti built with Play-Do and excess cat hair, and a bizarre altar that’s part Angkor Wat and part Red Light District.
The sad truth is Carpenter hasn’t made a decent movie in almost 2 full decades (I’m willing to place Memoirs of an Invisible Man into consideration, but that’s only a) because I still bear some affection for Chevy Chase and b) we have to still consider it one of Carpenter’s lesser films). But Big Trouble in Little China came at the apex of Carpenter’s career arc - in the midst of certifiable classics like The Thing, They Live, Escape from New York and even Prince of Darkness. It was back when he still was able to inject a solid sense of humor into his pictures, as well as avoid taking his work too seriously. Of course, it helped that he had Kurt Russell in the picture, as the two had formed a solid bond during the filming of Escape and The Thing, and Kurt Russell possessed a charisma that truly carried the picture. A combination of vivid imagery, brilliant and creative set design (the Chinatown you see in the film is a set, a painstaking reproduction that was necessary in order to film some of the more difficult scenes) all helped push the film beyond its low-budget, B-reel roots. Coupled with the innovative writing of W.D. Richter (director of another great biographical film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension), Big Trouble in Little China succeeded in turning the already larger-than-life story of Jack Burton and friends into a compelling, humorous (not to mention ridiculously quotable), and wholly engrossing experience.
Initially, I was reluctant to review this as a part of the Hangover Theater series — it just didn’t feel right. However, since we’ve yet to begin a biography series, and Dustin won’t let me run my series called “The Best Fuckin’ Movies Ever in the History of Fuckin’ Ever,” it had to find a home somewhere. So even if it’s just to help relieve the suffering of the drunks and malcontents, I’m glad. Jack Burton’s story needed to be told 22 years ago, and that story needs to live on today. I guess what I’m trying to say is, Jack Burton is a hero the likes of which the world rarely sees. He’s an everyman - a lout and a buffoon at times, a wiseass and something of a lone wolf. But he also understands that when all hell breaks loose, you need to stand with your friends and you need to fight for what’s right. Jack Burton saved the world, goddamn it, and John Carpenter, using every atom of directorial talent he has, managed to capture that saga without losing any of the wonderment of the story. If he can help Wang recover Miao Yin from the depths of Lo Pan’s evil, if he can brave the Hell of the Upside Down Sinners, if he’s willing to risk encountering the Hell Where People are Skinned Alive and the Hell of Being Cut to Pieces (Chinese have a lot of hells), then why the hell can’t he cure something as simple as a hangover? Sunday, at 3:20 PM on Retro, I say you give him a shot.
Need another reason? OK, fine — how’s this…
Reason # 3 why Jack Burton can save you: Because when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake… Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”
TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.