Jack Burton: Anti-White Savior

The unlikely journey of “Big Trouble in Little China” from box-office flop to cult classic

I saw Big Trouble in Little China (BTiLC) upon its original theatrical release in 1986. The critics did not like it. Roger Ebert wrote:

[S]pecial effects don’t mean much unless we care about the characters who are surrounded by them, and in this movie the characters often seem to exist only to fill up the foregrounds […] straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all of the usual stereotypes.

What the ever-perverse Ebert saw as one of the film’s strengths, its special effects, were actually pretty cut rate. Boss Films, contracted to do the work for less than $2M. As a comparison, Ghostbusters spent more than double that amount, $5.7M on SFX with Boss two years earlier. This made for some pretty cheesy effects, notably a D&D Beholder-type animatronic, and a demon-ape suit both of which stood out as the dismally floppy latex creations they were. The animatronic was actually fairly sophisticated, apparently, operated by several puppeteers and used dozens of cables controlling its facial expressions and there was also a specially designed matte system used to film it. All of which sounds like a massive waste of money, since it was on screen for only a few minutes and didn’t look at all good. Still, Slimer from Ghostbusters was similarly cheesy.

As to Ebert’s claims about stereotypes, a boycott of the film as a “white man’s product” in which Asians’ roles were minimized was also called for, seeming to agree with his point.

Nor was Newsweek’s David Anson a fan:

[O]ne can’t help feeling that Carpenter is squeezing the last drops out of a fatigued genre.

This falls even further from the mark: BTiLC was the first of something brand new. A big-budget Hollywood martial arts film had never been made previously and contrary to Anson’s gloomy predictions many have been made since. Indeed one of BTiLC’s troubles was that it had been rushed in order to not be eclipsed by another American chopsocky flick, The Golden Child, which, with Eddie Murphy’s star power, was expected to dominate the Christmas BO. The Golden Child was the eighth largest grossing film of the year, raking in $79.8M in domestic BO. The Golden Child’s Rotten Tomatoes score is 26%/ 47%, so one can see how big a factor Murphy’s draw was on the release, even for film that was clearly not very good.

Audiences seem to have validated the criticisms of BTiLC; it grossed only $11.1 million in North America, failing to earn back even half of its $25 million budget. It had seemingly been relegated to the trashheap of history.

Director John Carpenter was quite annoyed with all of this as well as the lack of marketing support from the studio (Fox) who he said “didn’t get it”:

The experience [of Big Trouble] was the reason I stopped making movies for the Hollywood studios. I won’t work for them again. I think Big Trouble is a wonderful film, and I’m very proud of it. But the reception it received, and the reasons for that reception, were too much for me to deal with. I’m too old for that sort of bullshit.

So just to quickly recap: the effects were cheesy, it included dubious “Chineseness”, it had been rushed to market, and it was disliked by both critics and audiences. I liked it immediately.

For some reasons why, let’s back up, way up: I was a kung fu kid.

It probably started with The Monkey King (西遊記; the title is typically translated as Journey to the West, but the specific copy from my childhood was named for the main character). My copy, which I still own, is a weird one: it’s a massive quarto that was not likely to have been intended to be a kids’ book. It was (I later learned) required reading for a class my mother took on Asian Literature. It’s an Anglo-Czech effort, translated into Czech by Zdena Novotná (credited as editor), and then into English by George Theiner, with Chinese-esque woodblock-esque illustrations by Zdeněk Sklenář, and published in 1964. But when I read its title even though it sat high on the top shelf, I was intrigued—what or who is this king of monkeys?

All this happened before I had mastered reading (the title was about the limit of my abilities), so I demanded it be read to me.

And what was inside was something new. Although I was a big fan of several kinds of mythology, I could tell this was something different. Sun Wukong (孫悟空), with his glittering eyes, magical staff, and mischievous personality, eating the peaches of immortality, roasting in Lao-Tzu’s (老子) furnace, rebelling against heaven, fighting demons, and walking on clouds—all this was, if not already up my alley, my new alley forever.

Today my bookshelf boasts not only that original volume, but also Arthur Waley’s Monkey: A Folk Novel of China, and two different nicely illustrated versions of the quelling of the White Bone Demon (Monkey Subdues the White-Bone Demon, by Wang Hsing-Pei, and Monkey and the White Bone Demon, by Jill Morris), as well as a silver-and-cloisonne statuette of old Sun I found in Hong Kong.

Then, in the early ’70s, I saw The Magic Serpent (怪竜大決戦). I don’t think I immediately associated the two experiences, but now I was seeing things like what was in the book: dudes hiding in trees and underground, flying through the air, transforming into giant monsters—oh yeah!

I wanted more. On weekend mornings and evenings, when I had access to a TV, I’d troll the UHF dial, and when video rental places started appearing, I’d search their Action sections for anything even vaguely Asian (with many disappointments). There were also some bright spots, like when I was in high school and WGN showed Five Deadly Venoms (五毒)—you could tell who the cognoscenti were: the ones trying to imitate the moves of Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad in the hallways. And eventually there was Samurai Sunday which showed different martial arts movies weekly on Channel 66.

Then, when I was a student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I discovered a run-down theater a few blocks away called the McVickers that showed these films back to back to back all day long for a buck. Every time I had a break between classes it was the best dollar I could ever spend.

Built in the early ’20s, the McVickers was once a lovely neo-classical building with live theatrical performances. When I went there it was barely ahead of being shut down in 1984, and then demolished in 1985. Its fluted columns were overshadowed by a rundown, garish, tacked-on marquee with two-foot-high red letters blaring titles like 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Fistful of Talons, Shogun Assassin. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had stumbled across a rare, authentic, classic kung fu palace grindhouse.

Hollywood producer and Chicago native, William Horberg recalls it thus:

It was like a rock concert with the audience of mostly drunk or homeless people shouting out to the screen as if they were interacting live with the characters in the movie.

The floors were sticky, the films were dubbed and subbed in a variety of languages from the familiar to the obscure, the seats threadbare or just plain broken. I’d generally end up seeing the end of one movie and the beginning of another, so I often had no idea what was going on. None of these things mattered; it was glorious. Later, another US wuxia flick, The Last Dragon, captured the grindhouse vibe in its opening scene. The wuxia genre is essentially similar to kung fu, but with fantasy elements instead of the grittiness usually associated with kung fu films. My brother made the connection to The Last Dragon and called me Bruce Leroy for a time.

I also studied Asian martial arts: Kenjutsu (剣術), Northern Sil Lum Kung Fu (北少林), Wushu (武术), Eskrima, and Ninjutsu (忍術), but gravitated toward esoteric “internal” martial arts like aikido (合気道), t‘ai chi ch‘üan (太極拳), hsing i ch’üan (形意拳), and pa kua chang (八卦掌). I’ll apologize for this mishmash of Mandarin and Cantonese forms, as well as varying Romanizations—I’ve used the names by which I learned them. They were hard to find at first, and honestly, one of the things that attracted me to San Francisco. Not that I’ve ever used it particularly, apart from occasionally abusing tiles in Hongdae (홍대)—that’s not even the point. One of the reasons I enjoy fencing is that it’s a martial arts-based sport where you can go all out and no one dies.

Turning back to BTiLC, its Rotten Tomatoes score is 82%/ 83% despite bombing at the BO. When it was released for home video, it slowly began to find its audience. In 2001, a special two-disc special DVD set was released to reasonably positive reviews. Entertainment Weekly particularly favored the:

[P]itch perfect Russell and Carpenter commentary, which delves into Fox’s marketing mishaps, Chinese history, and how Russell’s son did in his hockey game.

Its cult status has seemingly only increased since then. 2012 saw the creation of a parody of “Gangnam Style” featuring BTiLC’s antagonist, “Lo Pan Style”, racking up over a million views. In 2015 Funko released a line of vinyl figures of characters from the film, and in 2016, BOOM! Studios marked the film’s 30th anniversary by launching a comic book series and a pair of books, The Official Making of “Big Trouble in Little China” and The Official Art of “Big Trouble in Little China”, which has to have set a record for time between a movie’s release and the publication of such matter. Entertainment Weekly noted in an article about the former book,

It’s interesting how, one by one, all of John Carpenter’s commercially disappointing films are being elevated to the status of beloved cult classics.

And even though, as one of the authors, Paul Terry, responded, “Oh, man, he is the master”, BTiLC was a tough one for even the master to tackle.

Novice screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein originally envisioned the piece as a Western set in turn-of-the-last-century San Francisco: the protagonist’s horse was named Porkchop, which later morphed into Burton’s truck, The Pork Chop Express. Carpenter and Fox saw promise, but knew that changes needed to be rung. W.D. Richter, known for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a cult classic in its own right, was tapped for a rewrite. Even though he is only credited with having “adapted” the script, he set in place the major elements of the work as filmed, and continued on as Carpenter’s script doctor during filming.

Carpenter took his own editing pass through the script, aimed at removing material that was offensive to the Chinese, as well as playing up the screwball comedy he saw among the characters:

The characters are offbeat, nutty. They remind me of the characters in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. These are very 1930s, Howard Hawks people.

His approach to the wuxia fantasy elements was, naturally, influenced by his experience of the genre:

I saw my first kung fu movie in 1973. It was — what the hell was the name of that thing? — Five Fingers of Death! It was truly an astonishing film. There was an innocence to these movies and a joyousness that I loved. I wanted to bring all that to Big Trouble.

He cast some of the biggest names in the Asian acting community: Dennis Dun and Victor Wong, both of whose work in Year of the Dragon had impressed Carpenter, James Hong, who had been acting since the ’50s with a credits list as long as your arm, and then Carter Wong with over 60 kung fu films under his belt, as well as a who’s who of Asian martial arts actors including Jeff Imada, James Lew, George Cheung, Al Leong, Gerald Okamura, and Dan Inosanto.

I’d say that BTiLC was essentially to Asian actors what The Blues Brothers had been to Black musicians; if anything even more so. Hearing the rumblings from the Asian community about how they assumed a Caucasian director was going to handle Chinese themes and roles, Dennis Dun said:

I knew I had a responsibility, being an Asian-American actor. I talked with John Carpenter, and you could tell that he didn’t want a disparaging image of Asians. I’ve been on sets where you go there and you feel like you’re a second class citizen sometimes. But on that set you felt like you were part of the team.

And of the cast:

I’m seeing Chinese actors getting to do stuff that American movies usually don’t let them do. I’ve never seen this type of role for an Asian in an American film.

Black Belt magazine, covering on a cast reunion in 2015 reported that Hong said:

[T]he filming of Big Trouble in Little China will always be near and dear to his heart because it marked the first time in his 60-plus-year film career that he’d been part of a (practically) all-Asian cast in a big budget American movie.

As Hollywood no doubt required, Carpenter cast Anglo leads—exactly three non Asians, and that’s all: Kurt Russell (Jack Burton), Kim Cattrall (Gracie Law), and Kate Burton (Margo). Burton commented:

Kurt Russell, and Kim Cattrall, and I were [virtually] the only non-Asian actors in the movie. I was aware at the time that it was pretty extraordinary.

And even these roles are far from traditional. Burton’s is a minor role, Gracie’s journalist friend, Margo, and Cattrall was also pleasantly surprised that her character wasn’t a damsel in distress:

I’m not screaming for help the whole time.

Russell’s character on the other hand (and rather pivotally) was not intended to be the hero riding in to save the day. Instead Carpenter wanted to reverse the traditional roles of White protagonist and minority sidekick. For all his swagger, he’s actually a blunderer, and often requires saving himself. His catchphrase is “what the hell?!” and not in the devil-may-care sense, but in the I-have-no-idea-what’s-going-on one. And indeed he has far more questions than he does answers. Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), on the other hand, is shown as quite skilful and heroic, apart from a minor lapse at the start of the film when he fails to cut a bottle in half with a knife, which is important in getting the film’s plot rolling.

Russell was very clear on who the hero was:

The real lead was Wang.

Carpenter concurs:

Jack Burton is a guy who is a sidekick but doesn’t know it. He’s an idiot-blowhard. He’s an American fool in a world that he doesn’t understand.

Meanwhile, Dun was worried about his role and his inexperience:

It was only my second film. I was very nervous taking a part like this. John Carpenter always said, “Don’t worry, you’re fine, just be a hero, don’t worry about it.”

There’s a great supercut on YouTube of all the questions Jack asks in the film—the upshot is there are a lot. He’s basically a standin for the uninitiated American viewer, and even for Carpenter himself: he’s not here to explain the genre, nor to fix it, being no more competent than any other roundeye in these regards, instead just being true to it and presenting it to the best of his ability.

When Burton says “I don’t get it”, Lo Pan responds:

Shut up, Mr. Burton! You were not brought upon this world to “get it”!

SFX guy Steve Johnson said Carpenter threw him off the set for repeatedly ruining takes by laughing at this line.

And on set the process was highly collaborative, with actors ad-libbing a great deal of the action. Carpenter relied on them to help figure out what worked. Russell came up with knocking himself out by shooting out a chunk of ceiling, and Hong also recalled:

The director did not really know exactly how we should portray the battle scene between [Victor Wong] and I. But Victor and I had seen all these old Chinese films, where the two opponents would fight each other with this hand magic, where things would come out of their hands. That’s an old Chinese fable-type of magic-fighting. So, Victor decided to throw balls at me of fire, and I invented that I would cross my little fingers and little rays would come out. And Carpenter put that in the film.

After the good guys have won, and Jack is preparing to ride off into the sunset, he says to his companion:

We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we, Wang?

And they all did, in a film that reversed typical roles, the first-ever presentation of a US wuxia with a huge Asian cast and a big Hollywood budget. Dun was hoping this is what his career was going to be like:

[M]aybe […] I’ll keep getting more interesting roles that are beyond the stereotypes of Asians. But it didn’t happen.

Even though Hollywood didn’t change—hasn’t changed—and things went back to how they normally were, BTiLC did indeed rattle the firmament. Wang responds,

No horseshit, Jack.