The story of John Carpenter's ascension from film school wunderkind, to cracked populist auteur, to floundering relic is, in many ways, the story of the American film industry itself. Here, we had a man who was prodigiously talented, and in the initial incarnation of his career was an independent renegade, who created some of the most audacious and arresting films of his period. From the low-budget satire of 'Dark Star', a film which oozes atmosphere and pioneer spirit, to the seething brutality of 'Assault On Precinct 13', to the triumph and critical acclaim of his proto-slasher masterpiece 'Halloween', Carpenter seemed to leap from genre to genre with abandon, revitalising and reinvigorating each one in turn. With 'Escape From New York', Carpenter seemed to have reached the acme of his creative trajectory, crafting a film which radiated menace, viciousness, and a tough, no-nonsense sheen. His muse, the wonderful Kurt Russell, created a character in Snake Plissken who was reminiscent of the antiheroes of the westerns of yore, but who maintained the amorality, determined individualism, and lean, sleek physique that would make him an iconic image of the early 1980's.
With 'The Thing', Carpenter gave the world his horror masterpiece. A textbook exercise in the visual possibilities of horror, 'The Thing' was a dark and nihilistic experience, which plummeted viewers into a chasm of gut-churning special effects and pure, unfiltered terror. It was a film dripping with the Cold War paranoia of the 1950's films it paid homage to, but this was Reagan's America - and 'The Thing' proved to be a muscular and intimidating film, very much reflecting the hyper masculinity of the time. Sadly, 'The Thing' was Carpenter's downfall. The world was not willing to accept 'The Thing's cruelty, darkness, and atmosphere of isolation - especially when the lure of E.T had taken hold of the public consciousness, and Spielberg's bloated fairy tale catapulting his star into the stratosphere.
Carpenter was at a crossroads, and I fear that it may have been a position in which there was no clear direction available to him. He responded with the downbeat 'Starman' - coaxing wonderful performances from Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges, in a film whose themes of death, regret, and longing again failed to register in commercial terms with the audiences of the day. 'Starman' is an unjustly forgotten item in the Carpenter ouvre' - it is the lost link between the nihilistic savagery of 'The Thing', and the genre-bending mindwarp of his 'Big Trouble In Little China' - but, it is certainly a film which deserves to be re-evaluated. It finds Carpenter in a far more pensive mood, and is a poetic and lyrical meditation on the death of a loved one, embedded in a glossy slice of mid-1980's genre filmmaking. A unique mixture - but, sadly, one which had difficulty finding an audience, rendering it a forgotten gem.
Carpenter's 'Big Trouble In Little China' proved to be his final collaboration with Kurt Russell, who was to attempt to parlay his renewed celebrity into a Hollywood career - an exercise which would meet with mixed success. 'Big Trouble' is a fascinating film as it finds Carpenter in a hyperactive and manic mode. It crackles with imagination, and on viewing it recently, I was quite astonished at the breakneck pace that it maintains, and how relentlessly active it is. From start to finish, 'Big Trouble In Little China' simply does not stop throwing things at you - stuff simply won't stop happening. The film opens with the first of Jack Burton's (Russell) monologues, as he drives a semi-trailer through a rainstorm into Chinatown. Russell had perfected his everyman persona by this point - in 'Big Trouble', he is effectively playing the same character as the one he portrayed in 'Overboard'. He is a buffoon - an unshaven, sweaty, mesh-cap wearing piece of white trash. With a lean, 80's physique and a white tank top, Russell swaggers through the film with the authority and cockiness of John Wayne - but with the insecurity and paranoia that the masculinity of the 1980's ultimately produced. 'Big Trouble's protagonist is Jack Burton - but he is in no way the action hero of the piece. That role, ultimately, falls on Dennis Dun as Wang Chi. Wang Chi does the fighting, knows the Chinese mythology, and is the one who understands the enemy that is being fought. Burton, on the other hand, is the American action hero transplanted to a completely foreign environment - Chinatown - and part of the film's comedy comes from his inability to comprehend what is happening to him, let alone equal the fighting prowess of his compatriots.
In this sense, 'Big Trouble In Little China' can be seen as a pastiche of Asian cinema - but I think that it is more than that. It is also a statement about the nature of masculinity in the 1980's. In Jack Burton, we have the 1980's action hero depicted with the narrative lens wiped clean. Carpenter is not interested in glorifying Russell's visual power - as George Pan Cosmatos' fascist trash masterwork 'Cobra' did for Stallone, or in Mark L. Lester's preposterous 'Commando' and it's relentless fetishization and homoerotic fixation on the superhuman body of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jack Burton is the everyman as action hero, but Carpenter understands that the everyman can never be Schwarzenegger or Stallone - and so, Burton's swagger, as well as his insecurities and physical vulnerabilities, are exaggerated with hilarious results.
The plot is a fairly compact riff on Asian cinema cliches - Wang Chi's girlfriend is kidnapped by an Asian gang, and she is to be sacrificed by an ancient demon named Lo Pan. Thrown in WASPish Kim Cattrall as a lawyer and potential love interest, and we effectively have Jack Burton and Wang Chi pitted against an army of underworld warriors, demons, and assorted villains. The plot is as streamlined and sleek as Russell himself, never attempting to be more than it is - a narrative homage to Asian film. Carpenter's concerns are more visual, anyway - and it is interesting that the script started life as a Western, before being transformed into the pastiche that the film ultimately became. As with the rest of Carpenter's work, Carpenter's direction is taut and muscular, and the man knows how to stage action sequences without resorting to the hyperkinetic editing and camerawork that make so many modern films so incoherent. 'Big Trouble', in many ways, is a textbook reading of the action film's staging - particularly in a sequence early on, in which Burton and Chi confront their assailants for the first time in an alleyway in Chinatown. Viewing the sequence in it's correct aspect ratio, I was quite struck by the elegance of Carpenter's framing - despite the reduced field of vision provided to the camerawork in the alleyway sequence, Carpenter manages to create a panoramic and expansive sense of speed and motion. The sequence SHOULD be claustrophobic, but it isn't - instead, it is a testament to Carpenter's skill as a director, and his understanding of the spatial requirements of an action sequence. He allows the movement to breathe, rather than attempting to compress and ultimately strangle the movements of his players - in the hands of a lesser craftsman, the sequence would have been cramped and confusing.
The film isn't perfect. Some of the acting is quite ropey - particularly Kim Cattrall, who is obviously shooting for a campy, OTT performance that will adequately capture the rush of the dialogue - but it just doesn't work. The film cops out slightly, in that it casts a lot of second and third generation Asian actors - rather than the real deal - which gives the players a muted feeling, and damages the authenticity of the setting. Carpenter's electronic score - which has been a hallmark of his films since the beginning - is merely pedestrian here, as opposed to the chilling exercises in sonic minimalism that characterised his work on 'Halloween' and 'Escape From New York'.
Ultimately, 'Big Trouble In Little China' saw the final crippling of Carpenter's commercial viability. The film was a flop - Western audiences simply weren't ready for the pot-pourri of Asian influences that informed every frame, and it was quickly forgotten. That is, until it was rediscovered on videotape - and later on DVD - and became cherished by cult film fanatics and lovers of unique celluloid relics. Carpenter would never again soar to the heights of 'Halloween', and would spend the next couple of decades slumming in increasingly low-budget, direct to DVD films, and forgotten, archaic genre exercises such as 1998's 'Vampires'. It is a shame, looking back, because Carpenter was always ahead of the cinematic curve. With 'Dark Star', he predicted the sci-fi spoof. With 'Halloween', he built the blueprint for what would become the slasher. With 'The Thing', he and Rob Bottin took horror makeup effects to the next level of complexity and ugliness. And with 'Big Trouble In Little China', he paved the way for the crossover exercises of Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat, who would go on to reap the financial rewards and critical acclaim that eluded Carpenter.
'Big Trouble In Little China', then, is a film which absolutely deserves to be viewed - but when viewing it, do keep in mind that it is captures the purest incarnation of the untapped, and ultimately unrealised potential of John Carpenter as an auteur and genre alchemist - and it called the bluff of homoerotic masculinity in the 1980's, years before such a thing was thought necessary or appropriate.