Perhaps nothing tells the story of Big Trouble in Little China better than the numbers. The film cost 25 million dollars to make, by far the biggest budget in director John Carpenter’s career to that point, and bombed at the box office, making only 11 million dollars back. It was widely misunderstood—audiences expecting a Kurt Russell action film received an offbeat, cheeseball riff on action movies, and many thought that the film’s portrayal of a magical underworld in San Francisco’s Chinatown reveled unfairly in dehumanizing depictions of Asian-Americans along the lines of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan.
Director: John Carpenter
Producers: Keith Barish, Larry Franco, Jim Lau, James Lew, Paul Monash
Writers: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter
Cinematographer: Dean Cundey
Editors: Steve Mirkovich, Mark Warner, Edward A. Warschilka
Music: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Cast: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li
Genre: Action / Adventure / Comedy
US Theatrical Release: July 2, 1986
US Distributor: 20th Century Fox
It both has and hasn’t aged well. White commentators have tended to be rather quick to absolve Carpenter, arguing that the director was sending up the stereotypes, instead of glorifying them, and that the script ultimately portrays Russell’s Jack Burton as more of a well-intentioned doofus, while Dennis Dun’s Wang is, in some ways, the real hero of the film. There’s definitely a lot of support for this reading of the film: if nothing else, Big Trouble is a highly cinema-literate labor of love, packed with signifiers that will jump out mainly to folks who love action and Kung Fu movies as much as Carpenter does. That being said, as Jay Caspian Kang’s excellent recent New Yorker article on the #CancelColbert controversy illustrates, what white commentators think is all too often privileged above that of non-white commentators. Much of the conversation around Big Trouble today comes from film geeks who are eager to salvage the film’s critical reputation, and any attempt to do that has to address the film’s treatment of Asian-Americans. Suey Park, the activist behind #CancelColbert, and who is the subject of Kang’s article, argues how a similarly defensive “response shows the totality of white privilege” in the case of the twitter campaign against the Colbert Report. Basically, she argues, that the often vitriolic, condescending tenor of the outrage of Colbert fans on twitter against her came from their sense of privileged entitlement: "They say, ‘Suey is trying to take away a show we enjoy, so we’re going to start a petition to take away her First Amendment rights and make rape threats.’ All this happens because they were worried that a show they enjoyed might be taken away."
As yet another white commentator myself, I can’t claim any authority over whether or not this movie is offensive. Big Trouble feels well-enough intentioned, like the cast is on the joke, and it’s definitely animated by a kind of positive energy. However, it is undeniably problematic. It’s certainly worth watching on its own merits, as a brilliant action-comedy that draws much of its charm from its cast, but it doubles as an instructive lesson in the ways progressive-enough white people with decent-enough intentions can fuck things up. All too often, pundits are out to either build something up to dizzying heights, or reduce it to rubble. Big Trouble in Little China is a movie that doesn’t deserve either of those fates—it’s animated by incredible cinematic joie-de-vivre, but limited by a privileged insensitivity that all too often gets a free pass from the (predominantly white) intellectual commentariat.
Let’s start with how the script introduces our film’s protagonist, Jack Burton, at the very beginning of the film. It is as good an example as any of how the film treats its primary, almost Lebowski-esque, non-hero. Screenwriter W.D. Richter knows his way around camp, and writes with obvious affection—even in the staging directions—for a guy who is basically a blowhard. Here’s the beginning of the film’s shooting script:
Jack Burton is a doofus, and when Richter writes that “if they still made outlaws in 1985, Jack Burton’d be one” it’s obvious that the type of outlaw we’re discussing is not exactly Butch Cassidy. “Like I told my last wife, I said, ‘I never drive faster than I can see” is a sterling example of the kind of dad humor (delinquent dad humor, maybe) that populates the script, and which Russell delivers with a great deal of charm and conviction. If nothing else, the film is a powerful argument for Russell as a very specific kind of comedic actor—one who can sell this kind of offbeat, maybe even self-indulgent brand of humor hard—really hard. The movie manages to coax belly laughs instead of small smiles and eye rolls, and it’s largely due to Russell’s charisma in the role.
Carpenter makes this same point on an enjoyable DVD commentary track that he does with Russell, arguing that the actor’s willingness to look ridiculous (as he does, for instance, during the climactic fight sequence when he has Kim Cattrall’s lipstick smeared on his lips) was one of the keys to the film. Both Carpenter and Russell make the argument that Dennis Dun’s Wang, as the more competent character, is the true hero of the film. However, Dennis Dun isn’t on the commentary track—Kurt Russell is. And although Dun’s character is written with real affection, and given a sense of humor—probably one of the most humanizing traits a written character can be given—it’s clear that the lion’s share of the film’s adoration lies with Russell’s Jack Burton.
That’s problematic in a film that features Asian actors and characters as extensively as this one. It shouldn’t be the case that the film employs traditionally problematic tropes (strange “oriental” sorcery, broken English, alarming amounts of characters who are either employed in a Chinese restaurant, know Kung Fu, or both) in a “progressive” way, just to appealingly present a character that Richter, Carpenter, and Russell love. That’s worth feeling uncomfortable about. Richter’s and Carpenter’s intentions surrounding this character, while marred by ignorance, do feel sincere—that much of the character’s appealing presentation has more to do with him being a lovable loser than any kind of admirable hero.
That doesn’t get the movie off the hook, but it does illuminate something pretty interesting—that Jack Burton’s tank-topped torso stepped onto the screen two years before Bruce Willis’s John McClane debuted in Die Hard. In many ways, Burton and McClane are different sides of the same coin—and it’s astonishing that the comic version came first. Burton is a cowboy, cracking one-liners and achieving success almost by accident. It’s hard not to see him as a sort of prototypical George W. Bush, and John McClane could certainly be viewed in the same way. There’s probably an essay to be written linking the action movie craze of the late-Reagan era and the heroes that it spawned to the neoconservative movement of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s (and, let’s be real, here. If you think Harrison Ford in Air Force One didn’t swing a few votes in the 2000 elections, you’re kidding yourself). Watching Die Hard’s Hans Gruber dismiss McClane’s cowboyish antics has always put me in mind of Jacques Chirac, and what’s interesting about the difference between Carpenter’s film and John McTiernan’s is the way the cowboyishness is treated. Carpenter’s movie laughs at it affectionately, while McTiernan’s unabashedly celebrates it.
In part, this is because of how the two films conceive of what surrounds the cowboy mentality. In Die Hard McClane is surrounded by condescending but sophisticated eggheads, incompetent by-the-bookers, and timid innocents who need to be protected. Whereas in Big Trouble, Burton is surrounded by people who tend to know better than he does what’s going on, and how to fix things—Burton’s just along for the ride, trying to help out where he can, but usually messing things up. When you look at how the two films did at the box office--Die Hard an incredible smash, Big Trouble a huge flop—it’s not hard to see the ways in which Carpenter’s film was (mis-) interpreted upon release. America was ready for a doofus hero, in fact wanted one badly—after all, it had just elected one into the oval office twice. And Burton didn’t quite deliver the goods in that respect—his swaggering bravado wasn’t matched with McClane’s unconventional, rule-breaking competence. He wasn’t a guy that American audiences ended up rallying around, and if the Kurt Russell character couldn’t do that, in this film, then how much of a chance did Dennis Dun have?
Dun is charismatic on screen and has some incredible martial arts chops, but he’s undeniably a smaller physical presence than Russell is. In context, I’m inclined to think that Carpenter wasn’t thinking about size in a traditional context—he was likely well-aware of Bruce Lee’s success as a smaller leading man in Kung Fu pictures. This speaks to the film’s progressiveness but also, I think, to what could be called a privileged insensitivity. Throughout the movie, it’s Russell’s prominent biceps grabbing the screen. If Dennis Dun’s Wang was ever going to strike most audiences as the hero in this picture, in 1986, he was probably going to need even more attention from the screenwriter and the director than what he received here. Carpenter could be given the benefit of the doubt, but could also be found culpable of not paying enough attention to his context.
Nowhere does this privileged insensitivity become more apparently an open question than in the very basic fact that this is a movie with Asian-Americans front-and-center, surrounded by a bunch of sorcerous special effects. There are mystical powers and strange creatures, and it can be uncomfortable to watch—it feels only a couple steps away from orientalism or exoticization. It’s very easy to understand why Asian-American advocacy groups had serious issues with this film, and those issues shouldn’t be dismissed. I’ve heard the argument that Carpenter was riffing on a subgenre of Hong Kong Kung-Fu movie that tended to incorporate sorcery and magic, commonly known as Magic-Fu. Tsui Hark’s 1983 Zu Warriors from Magic Mountain is frequently cited as an influence. Without having much familiarity with the genre, it does seem like the kind of thing a cinephile like Carpenter would geek out on and want to treat affectionately. Moreover, throughout the film, veteran Asian-American actors like James Hong and Victor Wong seem to be having a good time on set, very much “in” on what the film is doing—but an actor’s experience is not the audience’s. We can talk about the movie’s intentions and give it the benefit of the doubt, but I keep thinking about two things: one is what the road to hell is paved with, and the other again, is Kang’s article.
Because, when you think about intentions, you wonder about whether the audiences of 1986 would have sniffed them out. Granting Carpenter the benefit of the doubt, Big Trouble is not a genre action throwback to the Charlie Chan era, but a funny, sharp sendup of that filmmaking culture that, at the same time, recast Asian actors in important roles. But, again, the box office numbers tell the story of how the film was received—the movie bombed. People either weren’t “ready” for the movie, or didn’t like it, or most likely, (as I suspect) some mix of both. There were a certain amount of people who “got” it, and the vast majority of the film’s potential audience didn’t end up seeing the point. And this raises questions about what the responsibility of a filmmaker is, because if this movie had gotten huge in 1986, it seems likely that it would have gotten huge for the wrong reasons. Most of the audience would have understood that this was an offbeat comedy, but audiences would likely have trouble seeing its portrayal of Asians as anything other than a “weird” or strangely off-key continuation of the status quo—they would know that the movie was somehow “different,” but they’d be at a loss to interpret the politics. And this is where, I think, we double back to Kang’s article, because it helps illuminate the limits of interpretation in a society that is deeply permeated by white privilege, and elucidates the responsibility that reviewers and audiences have, not just filmmakers.
All too often, like some of Colbert’s overzealous fans, we fall in love with our own interpretation of a movie (or a person or a current event or a political issue) and look for ways to either let it off the hook, or explain exactly what is wrong about it, without considering the specimen example in its larger context. We take the principle of having “the right” to one’s opinion as license to be assholes. Much of the conversation surrounding Big Trouble as a cult classic has come from a predominantly white audience that has been very eager to let it off the hook because they love the humor, the Kurt Russell performance, and indeed, a little bit of element X—a kind of cinematic joie-de-vivre that can be found in many of John Carpenter’s best films, but is rare in mainstream Hollywood. But is that enough, on its own, to save this film? I’m troubled by people who are too comfortable watching this movie, but the fact that it brings up these thoughts makes it valuable too. Big Trouble in Little China, in its way, is perfect, imperfect, flawless and flawed; problematic, but also forgivable. It’s worth watching, on its merits as an insanely joyful celebration of genre, but also, despite its best intentions, as an uncomfortable example of what privileged filmmaking can look like. There aren’t easy answers here, but that’s a good thing. We typically reach for the easy things without thinking enough about them.