[Editor’s Note: Welcome to “Stream This,” our weekly feature where we single out television programs and movies of considerable merit that are available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle, or other streaming services. Look for a new recommendation every week.]
Not all that long into John Carpenter‘s rapturously cuckoo Big Trouble in Little China, intrepid truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), the film’s ostensible hero, is rushing back to to the titular San Francisco neighborhood from the airport when a big rig, carrying Puma apparel, gets in front of him. Now, sure, one could excuse this seemingly inconsequential happening as just a reiteration of Burton’s urgency in getting back to Little China, especially considering the fact that he just witnessed a kidnapping at the airport, including the abduction of his friend Wang’s (Dennis Dun) would-be fiancee, Miao (Suzee Pai). In another sense, however, it’s a revealing gaze into the work ethic and filmic philosophy that drives Carpenter: an acknowledgement and immediate dismissal of the corporate interests that fund movies both big and small. It’s a blunt visual statement, sans any bullshit concept of embedding the advertisement or making the product part of the narrative, and it speaks to the muscular B-movie attitude that has marked all Carpenter films, including his under-appreciated late work.
This thinking can also be felt in his efficient, masterful pacing, with the action setting off quickly with the kidnappings and leading fleetly into a war between rival gangs in Little China, which summons a storm and a quartet of mystic, powerful figures. Before that, however, Burton is seen as a self-agrandizing, near-mythical figure on his CB Radio, telling tall tales to other truckers on the road. As written by Carpenter, Burton is brave, to be sure, but also quite dumb, and this becomes a crucial bit of upending of heroic stereotypes. Burton isn’t like Russell’s other Carpenter-originated hero, Snake Pliskin of Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. He’s not as pickled and certainly nowhere near as cool, and he takes on a similar role as James Stewart’s character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in Carpenter’s film, a buff, fearless, and yet only marginally useful heroic type who plays the fool to the ass-kicking Wang.
Russell’s character undermines the American hero archetype, but the film extends to considering the role of tradition in Chinese culture as well. Wang and his friends, including the magical saint of Little China, Egg Shen (Victor Wong), and wise-ass Eddie (Donald Li), respect their culture and traditions but also live in the now, working at family restaurants and striving to make a life for their family through hard work or the occasional big pay-off from a hand of cards. The gangs, as well as the evil emperor Lo Pan (James Hong), see history and tradition as a route back towards global dominance, as well as a way of curing a case of heartbreak. Continuing personal history is a form of wisdom to be past on, but an attempt to recreate history is ugly, violent, and monstrous, quite literally.
As befits a Carpenter film, there’s a sprinkling of cheap, inventive visual effects and physical monster design that gives Lo Pan’s forge a nice hint of the absurd and the emotionally outlandish. There’s that not-werewolf creature that captures Burton and Wang within the trading company that veils Lo Pan’s operation, and that crazy all-seeing-eye monster that gives Lo Pan a better look at his adversaries’ plan. Carpenter keeps the action kinetic throughout the film, and the film is edited into a lean machine of wild B-movie madness. The fights are excellent, especially the climatic battle after taking magical shots of god-knows-what from Egg, and Carpenter’s love and fascination for medieval fantastical touches is evident in the design of Lo Pan’s trading-company-cum-fortress. The film concludes with a set-up for a sequel, which I don’t imagine the recently announced Dwayne Johnson reboot will be, but one must hope that Johnson’s sequel echoes the tone of Carpenter, who has always had a journeyman genre master vibe to his work. To this day, he continues to give B-movie material a touch of the mad and the poetic, looking back at the monster movies and adventure flicks of his youth only to recast them as thrilling, endlessly entertaining modern fables.
Big Trouble in Little China is currently available for streaming on Amazon Instant.