‘Big Trouble in Little China,’ and why John Carpenter gave up on Hollywood

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Big Trouble in Little China. ()
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Simon Abrams

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“You know what this is,” Kate Burton asks midway through Big Trouble in Little China. “This is like some radical Alice in Wonderland, that’s what this is.”

That description doesn’t scratch the surface of how strange horror-master John Carpenter’s chop suey western is. Kurt Russell stars as a truck-driving, John Wayne-jive-talking (“Savvy English?!”) action hero who gets involved in a fracas between a Chinese black-magic sorcerer and a white-magic magician.

But wait, this film gets stranger still: Big Trouble in Little China sends up American chauvinism by glibly using Asian stereotypes … created by white guys like Sax Rohmer, the Brit who created the popular Fu Manchu character that is now emblematic of a kind of super-villainous and very racist Asian archetype in Western culture. It’s a wonder that Big Trouble got made at all: it’s as outré as Carpenter’s films get.

Big Trouble in Little China, which screens this Friday and Saturday night at the IFC Center as part of their “Cult Carpenter” series, is nothing if not beguiling. It’s one of a couple of box-office misfires for Carpenter that has since been retroactively embraced by critics and fans alike.

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And yet, at the time of its release, Big Trouble was such a box-office dud that Carpenter swore off making big-budget movies with major Hollywood studios. That boycott lasted for six years when Carpenter made Memoirs of an Invisible Man, a bizarre 1992 comedy starring Chevy Chase that’s now widely considered to have been a “paycheck film” for Carpenter (i.e.: he worked hard for his money and that’s about it).

Still, you have to understand where John Carpenter was coming from when he said, “I’m too old for this bullshit,” after reading some of the more negative reviews of Big Trouble in Little China. Carpenter finished Big Trouble on a budget of $25 million. This was, by far, the biggest budget he’d worked on up until that point, though he would later surpass it by a good margin with both Memoirs of an Invisible Man, which cost approximately $40 million to make, and then Escape from L.A., which cost about $50 million to make in 1996.

All three of those films were box-office bombs: Memoirs of an Invisible Man took in half of its budget while Escape from L.A. came up $8 million shy of recouping its costs. Big Trouble in Little China was the biggest loser of the bunch: It only grossed $11 million of its $25 million budget. So, when Carpenter saw Roger Ebert and his colleagues complain that the movie pointlessly reveled in racist stereotypes, it was like salt was being poured into a number of very fresh wounds. He was done with Hollywood—for the moment.

Big Trouble was a very difficult project for even Carpenter to wrap his mind around in the first place. When he initially read the script, he was not impressed; he found what neophyte screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein turned in to have been promising but messy. That script was polished—or “adapted,” officially—by W.D. Richter, the director of the 1984 absurdist sci-fi cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Richter had also polished the script for the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He was a perfect fit to adapt what Carpenter and others considered was a troubled but potentially lucrative project.

Richter’s revisions were needed because even Richter felt that the original script did not do a good job of combining its generic Western and fantasy elements. But his rewrites only served to make an already-cluttered film slightly more cogent. In the film’s original script, there were elements of supernatural kung fu films like Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain and even films like Shaw Brothers spook-a-blast gem The Boxer’s Omen. But after Richter’s rewrites, Carpenter added his own flourishes to the script, specifically elements of Howard Hawks-style screwball comedy.

So, after all that tinkering, what kind of hero was Jack Burton, Big Trouble in Little China’s lead protagonist? Originally, Carpenter wanted Burton be played by Jack Nicholson or Clint Eastwood. This was Carpenter’s way of giving the film a fighting chance against The Golden Child, Eddie Murphy’s 1986 East-meets-West action-comedy vehicle. But Clint and Jack were both busy with other projects. So Carpenter regular Kurt Russell (The Thing, Escape from New York) stepped into the role—even though he had his doubts about the role, saying that it could have been played a number of ways.

In the film’s theatrical cut, Jack Burton is a haughty man of action who screws up as often as he succeeds (this is a comedy, after all). After he wins a bet with friend Wang Chi (Year of the Dragon’s Dennis Dun), Jack tries to collect on his winnings. He inadvertently gets involved in a kidnapping plot orchestrated by an evil 2,000-year-old sorcerer named Lo Pan (Blade Runner’s James Hong).

Burton became a perfect symbol for Big Trouble in Little China’s various production-related successes and missteps. He’s a bit of a dunce but he means well (his mantra is simple: “What the hell”). He nicely sums up the film’s gung-ho attitude after shooting a floating monster with multiple eyeballs: “Hey, you never know until you try!”

And indeed, Carpenter and co.’s efforts were somewhat rewarded, eventually, when Big Trouble in Little China was embraced as one of Carpenter’s best films. That unfortunately did not immediately help his career prospects: He turned down offers to direct Top Gun and Fatal Attraction and instead worked on passion projects on much smaller budgets, like Prince of Darkness and They Live.

Carpenter would take his lumps as his career chugged along, but the colossal failure of Big Trouble in Little China proved greater than any other bust-up. It was the biggest sign for him that he and the moviegoing public were not going to see eye-to-eye all that often. The box office failure of Big Trouble in Little China was a bitter blow to his career. All the more reason to celebrate the director’s indomitable tenacity by watching this strange, great movie.