by Brendan Foley
Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.
When some wild-eyed column editors with a love for John Carpenter ask you if you’ve paid your dues, you just stare those big suckers right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: “Have ya paid your dues, Jack?” “Yessir, the Two Cents are in your e-mail.”
After the passing of our friend James Carey, we wanted to kick off the year with a tribute to his contributions to the site and to our hearts. Big Trouble in Little China was a movie that James dearly loved, as he wrote about here, so it was an easy choice to make.
And James was not alone in that love. When we posted the announcement of this film, it got an immediate reaction.
@TheTrueBrendanF don't need 200 words: BEST. MOVIE. EVER. 'Nuff said
— Boston Livingstone (@BostonDLHobbies) January 6, 2016
People love them some Big Trouble in Little China, which make the stories about the film’s commercial failure back on initial release all the more baffling. Studio and audiences alike were apparently baffled by the shifting tones, by the startlingly unheroic hero of Jack Burton, and by the underpinning caustic satire that John Carpenter infused into his fantasy-kung fu-western-action film.
With the passage of time, the film has developed a massive cult following and is now held up as one of the best films from Carpenter’s best era. Endlessly quotable, endlessly imitated, never matched, Big Trouble in Little China continues to delight and astonish audiences, making most every viewing a joyous experience.
We hope you got the chance to celebrate the film with us, and maybe if you have the time you can read some of James’s other articles, archived here. He was a great writer and an even better friend, and we at Cinapse are grateful for the time we got to share with him.
James, man, if you’re reading this, we hope we did right by a film you loved. Until next time, pal.
Next Week’s Pick:
Kurt Russell twofer? Why not?
Russell goes through periods of hibernation where entire years pass between movie appearances. One of the few 80s icons to hold onto their mystique, their integrity, and their mind, it remains a special delight whenever he pops up when the mood suits him.
So count as double-lucky as this year brought not one, not two, but THREE juicy roles for our man Kurt, and two of those were Westerns, a genre to which Russell is almost genetically well-suited.
With The Hateful Eight traumatizing theater-goers en masse, we decided to recognize Russell with his other heinously violent 2015 western, Bone Tomahawk. Now streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms, Bone Tomahawk is a merciless mix of genres that has left even the most iron-stomached of gore hounds a little tipsy by the end.
So join us next week as we saddle up and go to war with some troglodytes, here at Two Cents!
Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co!
Brendan Agnew:How do you tell what parts of a film’s brilliance actually planned? John Carpenter is (rightly) a legend in his field, but there’s a lot of his Kung Fu adventure Big Trouble in Little China that’s so slyly subversive that you almost have to wonder how much of it was intentional.
The film itself is an absolute riot, but aside from its legitimate trailblazing in bringing gonzo martial arts acrobatics and mysticism to Hollywood more than a decade before The Matrix made wall-running cool, arguably the biggest accomplishment is one Jack Burton. Played to John Wayne-ish perfection by Kurt Russell, Burton is the living embodiment of 80’s action machismo (including the cowboy fixation), from the tank top to the mullet to the swaggering drawl…but is the sidekick in his own movie.
That’s a great joke on its own, but look a bit closer. Jack saunters into Chinatown a would-be white savior, but it’s the culturally-sensitive (and multi-nationally patriotic!) immigrants who are the real heroes. Jack bumbles into success thanks to their assistance, which is quite the dig given the era and genre at play. If that level of social commentary was intentional, Carpenter was even more of a genius than we thought. (@BLCAgnew)
Trey Lawson:They don’t make them like Big Trouble in Little China anymore. Equal parts tribute to Hong Kong wuxia and off-the-wall 80s action-comedy, Big Trouble is a film that succeeds by never taking itself (or its hero) too seriously. Kurt Russell doesn’t get nearly enough credit for effectively spoofing the 80s action hero image he established in films like Escape from New York. His performance works because he is surrounded by equally capable actors. Dennis Dun has fantastic chemistry with Russell and enough action chops to handle the martial arts sequences. Kim Cattrall, the other foil to Russell’s clueless heroism, effectively plays an updated version of a Howard Hawks fast-talking heroine. Plus it’s pure bliss whenever Victor Wong or James Hong are onscreen. The action sequences even feature ubiquitous 80s stuntman Al Leong (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc)! On top of that, the score is an awesomely groovy synth soundtrack in Carpenter’s signature style.
I’ll admit when I first saw Big Trouble I wasn’t a fan. If taken solely as a martial arts film (like I did), it falls short of expectations. The action isn’t choreographed or shot quite as effectively as the Hong Kong films to which it pays tribute. However, taken as a campy blend of eastern and western genre elements (with a healthy dose of satire aimed at the conventional Hollywood protagonist) the film is a lot of fun. So, whether you’re encountering it for the first time or just the first time in a while, you just do like ol’ Jack Burton says and pay your dues. (@T_Lawson)
J.C. De Leon:Big Trouble in Little China is one of those rare movies that belongs in the upper echelon of popular culture cinema because, if you’re a fan of this movie, you’re all in on every aspect of it. It’s hard to be a fan of Big Trouble in Little China and nitpick it to death. For you, if you’re truly a fan of this movie, it’s a perfect movie. It has everything. Great acting, funny writing, good action and fight scenes, iconic characters, quotable lines, etc. It has that magical ability to transcend time because sure, you could sit down and watch a little bit of it if you want, but you and I both know that you’ll end up watching the whole damn thing. Big Trouble in Little China is a perfect movie. An absolutely perfect movie. (@jcdeleon1)
Jaime Burchardt:To this day, I believe Big Trouble in Little China is the only 20th Century Fox title I’ve seen that didn’t open with the traditional 20th Century logo music. It just goes right into the set-up, right into the small taste of the epicness to come. “You see? That was nothing.” This 1986 genre-mashing romp wasn’t exactly new territory for John Carpenter, but it’s still unlike anything else he’s ever done, and to an extent, unlike anything else we’ve ever seen. We’re thrown into a world of monsters, black magic, and mostly importantly, Kurt Russell giving one of his most iconic performances as Jack Burton. Big Trouble in Little China will always be a classic, of any genre or decade. (@jaimeburchardt)
Justin:Over the last few weeks, I’ve been accused of trolling in this column. While I may have trolled a bit, I do legitimately like the Star Wars prequels AND loathe 2001 (hours long): A Space Odyssey. I received several nasty texts and emails from Brendan threatening to destroy my Two Cents membership card, but I refuse to back down from being who I am… an extremely handsome man with questionable taste in film. (Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed by the commentators and do not necessarily reflect those of Cinapse and Two Cents as a whole. Although, on the ‘questionable taste’ point…yeah.)
This week, however, I cannot do anything but gush over the selection. My second favorite Carpenter film, Big Trouble in Little China, is one I somehow hadn’t seen until early 2015. In the months between then and this latest viewing, I’d racked up 5 additional viewings… nearly one a month since my discovery of this gem.
Kurt Russell channels his inner John Wayne, all the while retaining his regular guy persona. This performance, along with the great action, insane characters, and (of course) Victor Wong, make this film a 5 star work of utter perfection. The experience of watching back-to-back with The Golden Child has inspired me to make 2016 the year I watch every Victor Wong film.
In other words, not since The Phantom Menace have I been so entertained… (@thepaintedman)
Liam:Let’s get the most obvious point out of the way up front, Kurt Russell is amazing. I mean, I love him in so many things that this feels painfully obvious, but for real, dude owns the film.
Still, the film works not because of him alone, but thanks to so many awesome and ridiculous performances. The cast is an embarrassment of character riches. So many folks taking what could be a place holder and making it fun and unique and memorable.
This movie was the first Carpenter movie I cared about. I watched it every time it came on TV, I memorized parts of it, and I got excited to show it to every friend and every lover. It represents my joy, my dreams, I imagined adventures using the palate of this film. Is it a bit dated and silly? No, fuck you. It is a send up to a time and an age, and it is perfect. It is not amazing martial arts film, it is certainly not a film which provides a nuanced take on East Asian culture, and it is not a complicated film. It is, though, fun and exciting and a joy to watch… always. (@liamrulz)
Frank:Whenever someone brings up the term cult film, my mind automatically goes to this bona fide classic from John Carpenter. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, about this film makes much sense whatsoever. And that’s what makes it so great. The whole thing is a cinematic rollercoaster inside a sort of heightened reality which only Carpenter could make come to life so vividly. Adding to this is Carpenter favorite Kurt Russell as the lead, who is at one with the script from his first scene and turns in what I consider to be his best collaboration with the director. For me though, the secret to what makes Big Trouble in Little China such a deliriously crazy movie is how its a true hybrid of genres including action, comedy, romance and thriller. Beyond this though, it also shows just how versatile a filmmaker Carpenter can be with what remains his most unorthodox feature to date. Its understandable if a few people watching the film for the first time may not get it, but trust me, you’ll never be able to look at green-eyed girls the same way again. (@frankfilmgeek)
Brendan:I’ve written at length about my adoration of the film in the past, so there’s not much to add beyond a reiteration of just how perfect this film is. Endlessly delightful, loaded with layers and layers of gags (this might have been the first time I noticed that when Jack and Wang swagger into Lo Pan’s lair claiming to be with the phone company, Jack is carrying a rotary phone), Big Trouble in Little China is every bit as magical on the twentieth viewing as it is on the first. If you somehow have lived your life without this film, FIX YOUR LIFE.
Ed:The BetaMax videotape on which my family recorded Big Trouble In Little China off of a televised broadcast got absolutely worn to the point of unwatchability. Perhaps it was because I spent hours watching and rewinding the part where Carter Wong’s Thunder… self combusts? “I don’t think he’s gonna stop!” To this day my mother despises Big Trouble because of how often I watched it. I’ve since gone on to name my first car the Pork Chop Express (it was lettered across the windshield), and even now I sport a Pork Chop Express t-shirt in memoriam. The funny thing is… most of the movies you fall in love with as a small child are awful. You’ve experienced it. You go to revisit something beloved and are shocked by its poor quality. Big Trouble is probably a top 5 all time favorite film of mine, and it’s precisely because the film keeps growing up with me. Its layers of inspiration are deep, its comedy is rich and classical, its action is ahead of its time, and its director and star are one of the greatest pairings in cinema history. It really shakes the pillars of heaven, doesn’t it, Wang? (@Ed_Travis)
Austin:John Carpenter’s mainly known as a director of edgy horror and action films, but his deviations are just as interesting. Big Trouble In Little China fits a lot of descriptors one wouldn’t usually associate with Carpenter’s typically dark work: it’s a colorful, magic-filled, and unabashedly silly genre mixer.
It’s impossible to not like a film packed with favorite Asian character actors like thankless world’s #1 henchman Al Leong, ubiquitous and hilarious James Hong, and Victor “Graboids” Wong, not to mention a villain that almost certainly served as the inspiration for Mortal Kombat’s Raiden.
Frequent Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell’s at his best here playing a macho but mostly ineffectual hard-nosed klutz who gets in over his head in a huge Chinatown adventure of martial arts and ancient magic, wavering somewhere between audience surrogate, hero, and sidekick. Increasing levels of wonder and absurdity ensue with mystically powered villains, the traps of various “hells”, and underground labyrinths. You know what ol’ Jack Burton says about a crazy movie like this: By the time the weird monsters start showing up, you’re either on board or you’ve left the station. (@VforVashaw)
Did you all get a chance to watch along with us? Share your thoughts with us here in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook!