“Jack Burton. Me!”

big_trouble_little_china_movie_image_kurt_russell_01As any self-respecting cine-geek knows, John Carpenter’s 1986 BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains his most purely entertaining film, a visionary melding of 70’s martial arts films and 80’s spfx spectacle with an iconic, audacious tongue in cheek Kurt Russell performance. For a more detailed examination of this cult classic here’s a snippet from my Retro-View on the film:

Of course, only Kurt Russell could have pulled off Jack Burton, a bigmouth trucker coming to the reluctant aid of his friend Wang Chi after his fiancee is kidnapped by mystical demons. Russell is never afraid to appear weak or stupid as Burton, a courageous thespic choice even though we know the guy can kick-ass.  Speaking in a John Wayne tone, Burton isn’t as tough as he wishes, but he’s also fearless; his slow evolution from braggart to bravado is one of the pleasures of the film. However, the film’s actual hero is his partner, played with the perfect mix of idealism and wisdom by Dennis Dun. His character embodies a civic cultural pride but he can trade smart-assisms with Jack and string him along to help. Plus he knows kung-fu. Dun’s speech to Russell about the secret history of Chinese magic is a nifty evocative moment. They make a terrific team and I particularly dig their look of mutual shock as the Three Storms arrive on lightning bolts in the alley. In fact, Russell has a panopoly of convincing “what the fuck” reactions to the Chinatown chaos.

Well pardner, the New Beverly is presenting everybody’s favorite loudmouth reluctant hero and his colorful cast of kung-fu characters this Sunday, Monday and Tuesday on a fantastic 80’s Carpenter double-bill with THEY LIVE (1988), his subversive sci-fi satire on aliens colonizing us through consumerism. I’m assuming the prints will be up to the New Bev’s usual high standards amid their plush new seats and it will be a cinematic treat to watch two of John Carpenter’s best films with an ass-kicking crowd. OBEY.


44 Responses to ““Jack Burton. Me!””

  1. That’s awesome. I love both of those pictures.

  2. Oh wow… I would kill to see both of these films on the big screen again. I have very fond memories of seeing BIG TROUBLE the summer it came out. While it’s not Carpenter’s best film it is certainly his most enjoyable to watch and one I never tired of viewing. Insanely quotable dialogue, hilarious performance by Kurt Russell and silky smooth cinematography courtesy of Dean Cundey. Man, does it get any better?

  3. christian Says:

    It doth not get any better than Burton and Wang Li taking on the flying wires of Lo Pan’s underworld domain…

    And Cundey’s cinematography is stunning as is the costume design.

    It’s still my favorite Carpenter after ASSAULT ON PRECINT 13….

  4. If pressed, my fave is either BIG TROUBLE or ESCAPE FROM NY. It really depends on the day.

  5. It’s hard to pick favorites. Dark Star through Big Trouble is a great run by any standards. The Thing and Halloween are still at the top of my list, because I favor that genre and those are two of the best cinematic examples of it, ever.

    But BTiLC is great, and I will immodestly make the claim that I was among those who “got it” back in the day. Thought it was great fun, and didn’t understand the criticisms. But the action blockbuster as a joke played on the audience was a fairly bold and subversive move, and it probably sealed Carpenter’s fate and hastened his return to B budgets.

  6. carpenter sure did love him some russell (and who can blame him?)

    i heart carpenter

  7. christian Says:

    As I pointed out in Retro-View, I too was an immediate acolyte of BTILC and dragged whoever I could to see it that Summer of 86. Too little avail. It’s like America could sense Carpenter’s subversion of genre tropes like Burton’s big mouth brave fool and couldn’t respond. Carpenter is the least audience-pleasing director around in terms of expectations. DARK STAR is still pretty incredible too. Very witty and such an obvious precursor to ALIEN…

  8. i didn’t have any time earlier to say much about my beloved carpenter, but i’m wondering about something: i looked him up on IMDB because i was curious exactly how old JC is now, and i was struck by all his alternative names, which i copied over:

    Frank Armitage | Johnny Carpenter | James T. Chance | John T. Chance | Rip Haight | Martin Quatermass

    i’m familiar with rip haight & martin quartermass, but does anyone know the origin of the others? (apart from ‘johnny’ of course, unless that name actually has a story beyond what he was called when he was 8)

    also, thinking about the carpenter/russell love today, i suddenly realised it’s been bloody decades since i’ve seen his excellent ‘elvis’ tv bio-pic starring kurt, has anyone seen that lately? i’m itching to now

  9. In retrospect, Carpenter was way ahead of the times with BIG TROUBLE as in the 1990s Hong Kong cinema exploded in North America and pretty soon all kinds of Hollywood blockbusters were either trying to ape the HK style or hiring HK directors like John Woo only to water down their sensibilities.

  10. christian Says:

    John T. Chance was John Wayne’s character from RIO BRAVO and that was his name as Editor on ASSAULT ON PRECINT 13…

    ELVIS is terrific, the best movie I’ve seen about the King. And Russell is outstanding. I need to watch it again…

  11. Useless Carpenter trivia: Michael unmasked is the real-life brother of Joanie from Happy Days. Even I didn’t know this one until recently.

  12. christian Says:

    I did not know that.

  13. I have never seen Carpenter’s take on ELVIS. Color me intrigued. Russell makes a good Elvis… even though the film was crap, he looked good in the jumpsuit in 1000 MILES TO GRACELAND.

    • i hate to admit it but i’m one of the very few fans of ‘3000 miles to graceland’, in spite of myself and to my own chagrin and embarrassment

      carpenter’s ‘elvis’ is indeed brilliant, i had a HUGE crush on kurt after watching it on tv when i was but a lass

  14. christian Says:

    Carpenter loves Elvis so it’s not to be missed. I believe there’s a longer Euro-cut on DVD…And it’s the first time Carpenter/Russell teamed up!

  15. don’t do it, christian, i don’t know a single other person who likes ‘3000 miles’. it’s a foul-mouthed, repugnant mess of a movie but for some reason i find it endlessly watchable, because a) i think i’m a huge sucker for violent heist movies, and b) i’m a huge sucker for sleazy, sick mutherfuckers in elvis costumes trying to pull a heist, and c) i’m a huge sucker for kurt, and d) i find kevin costner absolutely hilarious as the mad man ‘murphy’ (again, i’lm pretty sure i’m the only one). costner is very funny in ‘the upside of anger’ and certainly FAAAAR more subtle in his most excellent perf opposite joan allen, but for balls to the wall mayhem it’s murphy all the way for me

    (tho my fave costner perf is and i suspect always will be butch in ‘a perfect world, but that was ‘young costner’)

  16. Yeah, A PERFECT WORLD is a great film… very underrated too. I think it also might be my fave Eastwood directorial effort as well. Alto, WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART is a close, close second.

    3000 MILES is definitely a guilty pleasure much like THE LAST BOY SCOUT is… pure violence and un-PC attitudes all the way.

    I will have to track down that JC ELVIS film. I’ve seen it on a few sites ’round the internet…

  17. i absolutely ADORE ‘a perfect world’, clint’s most emotionally compelling and nuanced film imho. it’s touching without being overwrought or saccharine, well-paced with bursts of action interwoven with really fine character work, esp. by costner and lowther (clint himself is rather bland in front of the camera but that really makes no nevermind because he elicits such a complex perf out of kevin), beautifully designed and photographed to capture the texas feeling, and just downright heart-wrenching at the end – one the few flicks that always brings a tear to my eye no matter how many times i’ve watched it or how jaded i think i’ve become.

  18. Agreed on all points, re: A PERFECT WORLD. My fave scene is the one in which Costner explains to Lowther how the car they are riding in is a time machine. Great stuff…

    • JD, that’s one of my fave parts, too (“i need a time machine with a loud radio…”) i told my boy that same thing about how the car is really a time machine as we were headed out on a road trip and he got such a kick out of the idea; i still haven’t let him watch ‘a perfect world’ though. he held his shit together for ’empire of the sun’ so maybe ‘a perfect world’ would be a good intro to clint sometime soon

  19. christian Says:

    Leah, if you think your warning about 3000 MTG scared me off…you just sold it! Sounds like my guilt guilty fave HARLEY DAVISON AND THE MARLBORO MAN…

    Haven’t seen A PERFECT WORLD but I know Spielberg was to direct at one time.

    I did watch USED CARS last night though….

    • don’t say i didn’t warn ya!

      (thou must watch ‘a perfect world’ when you get a chance. i adore much of spielberg but i’m glad clint got the job, he did an amazing job with time and place and character, some of his finest directorial work)

  20. “…maybe ‘a perfect world’ would be a good intro to clint sometime soon.”

    He’s never seen Clint? Never? Wow.

    You could always start out with those PG-rated monkey movies. Some innuendo, lots of swearing and beatings, but not exactly Dirty Harry. (Not exactly good, either, but that’s the way it goes.)

  21. frankb, i racked my brain (i’m pretty sure there were wisps of smoke) and the boy HAS seen clint at least once before in ‘escape from alcatraz’ when it was on cable a while back. i was surprised how much he got into it; over the next few days i was peppered with variations of: ‘do you think they survived? do you think frank is alive?” and “i think they made it”. he was very concerned about frank. apparently he had seen an episode of ‘mythbusters’ prior to seeing the film in which they replicated the escape with a raft made just as it was in the movie, and it actually held together and the intrepid ‘mythbusters’ duo did indeed make it to the mainland in the raft. so i think that really piqued his interest in the story)

  22. christian Says:

    Just don’t start his Clint education with FIREFOX.

  23. I concur. He’ll never make it to the end awake.

  24. no worries there, i don’t think i’ve ever seen ‘firefox’

  25. christian Says:

    I saw FIREFOX and still feel like I missed it.

  26. christian Says:

    Leah: Just plop him in front of the tube with a spaghetti dinner and pop in THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY.

  27. will do. i have it on VHS (i’m in denial that i need to replace my classics on VHS with DVD, they are my preciooouuuuussss)

  28. Keep the VHS that you don’t need on DVD — like WONDER BOYS. It’s my secure tape for cold nostalgic nights.

  29. Love WONDER BOYS. Man, what a great film that is.

    “Now, that is a big trunk. It holds a tuba, a suitcase, a dead dog, and a garment bag almost perfectly.”

    “That’s just what they used to say in the ads.”

  30. I find it a fall perenial and for some reason, I only want to watch my VHS version.

    “I…am a writer.”

  31. 3000 Miles to Graceland RUUUUUUUUULES. And the closing credits lip synch is a genuine DELIGHT.

    I grew up worshipping Carpenter, but never really took to Big Trouble — too light and goofy. I like it, I get what other people dig about it, Russell’s great… But from that era of Carpenter I want hard-R black-and-blue tinted nihilism and sinister imagery and Michael Myers and Frank Doubleday at the Ice Cream Truck or Snake Plissken and BUDDY FUCKING REPPERTON.

    Not a bunch of goofy comedy. I even prefer “Starman,” which is a great romance and road picture.

  32. I find STARMAN Carpenter’s least interesting picture. Hearts and flowers suits him less than goofy comedy, which suits him just right if need be. BTILC is the end of Carpenter’s Big Hollywood phase and the last time he and Dean Cundey would work together, so it has an iconic place in his oeuvre.

  33. Less interesting than the post-Mouth of Madness stuff? Less interesting than Invisible Man, which is kind of a wan, dreary downer in spite of Chase’s and Neill’s excellent performances?

    Yeah, visually J.C. was never quite the same again after Cundey; There’s something too on-the-nose about Gary Kibbe’s lensing. It’s still in widescreen and all, but the compositions look like Kibbe and Carpenter just stuffed a bunch of people in the center of frame… the lighting is kinda flat, and later took on the look of a bad Rodriguez imitation.

    I appreciate the energy and subversive qualities of Big Trouble, get that it’s all a big, loose affectionate ride. I’m just not the hugest fan of Asian martial-arts scorcery epics, so I don’t entirely appreciate that element of it the way the standard fanboy does.

    Starman works better as an actual movie… it’s pretty touching, has a great Jack Nietschze score and still feels more Carpenter than his ’90s output. I think it suited him fine, as it retains a lot of that Hawks quality that’s so important to Carpenter, not just in the central relationship but also with the Charles Martin Smith character. I think it’s a great Carpenter movie, actually. Much more so than BTILC.

  34. I dunno. STARMAN never did it for me. I certainly dig Jeff Bridges astonishing performance and he has great chemistry with Karen Allen (always loved her!) but the script is good but it doesn’t crackle with the kind of intensity like in BIG TROUBLE with all of that witty Howard Hawks-esque screwball banter and iconic lines and the way they’re delivered by the spot-on cast. It’s just plain ol’ entertaining romp of a film.

    I do agree with the assessment that Carpenter’s films never looked as good after he stopped working with Cundey. It’s the same with Oliver Stone and Robert Richardson. After they stopped working together, the look of Stone’s films suffered greatly.

    That being said, I do love some of JC’s post-Cundey films… THEY LIVE and PRINCE OF DARKNESS are excellent films and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is probably his last great one. Alto, I do enjoy James Woods in VAMPIRES.

  35. STARMAN has a great Bridges performance — Carpenter’s only film to be nominated for an Oscar — but the ET in peril plotline just felt over especially after ET. I’ll watch it again but it never resonated as a Carpenter film.

    IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is a bit of a mess but the climatic scene is astounding, one of Carpenter’s most unique set-pieces.

    I saw VAMPIRES opening night in Paris. Thank God for James Woods.

    • Looks like the movie gods (or Shout! Factory) are smiling down on us. The Kurt Russell/Carpenter first-time collabo ELVIS is finally getting a proper DVD release in March 2010. Here’s the specs:

      “Bringing A Legend To Life” Featurette With Archival Interviews Of Kurt Russell And John Carpenter (1979)
      Commentary By “The Voice Of Elvis” Ronnie McDowell And Author Edie Hand
      Rare Clips From American Bandstand
      Photo Gallery

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