It’s All in the Reflexes: How the Hero-as-Sidekick Conceit Elevated — and Sank — ‘Big Trouble In Little China’

By David Weiner

Did you catch that? A lot of people didn’t, and that’s one of the many reasons, documented and speculated, why John Carpenter’s BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA failed pretty miserably at the box office back in 1986. But, over three decades later, we’re still praising this wonderfully goofy mishmash of a movie starring Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, and a bevy of talented Asian actors with names many can’t quite place. Why? Because BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a much smarter and entertaining movie than most people give it credit for. Just ask the fans: There are those that get it and love it, and those that simply don’t.

Kurt Russell as Jack Burton in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

So what is there to “catch”? It’s the clever way that Carpenter and Russell took a genre film that was originally intended to be a dusty western, then fine-tuned it to become a highly quotable, contemporary, fish-out-of-water, supernatural, martial arts action-comedy that defies categorization and intentionally (and not-so-subtly) turns the main character, Jack Burton, into the film’s comic sidekick; a creative choice that made 20th Century Fox very, very nervous.

“I remember you and I talking about this and saying that we would flip-flop the leading man and the sidekick,” Russell tells Carpenter on the DVD commentary for the film. “The sidekick would act like the leading man and the leading man would act like the sidekick and not know it.” Carpenter replies with a laugh, “It’s bizarre how no one got that.”

Kurt Russell and Dennis Dunn as Wang Chi

The way Jack Burton was written in the BIG TROUBLE script was clear-cut before a frame was shot, according to Carpenter, but after the studio brass saw how he was portrayed on film, the director says with a chuckle, “I think they saw a different movie.” In fact, Barry Diller, then-chairman and CEO of Fox, requested that an additional scene be shot for the beginning of the picture to set the audience up for what to expect — and plant the idea that Jack Burton is the hero of the story. “I remember his reaction to the movie after he saw it,” says Russell. “[He said,] ’I don’t think [Jack Burton is] too good. I don’t think he does great stuff.’” Diller even had a hand in writing that opening scene, shot after production had already wrapped, with a set-up that has the character of Egg Shen (played by Victor Wong) talking to an attorney about a destructive explosion (of green flames, no less) in San Francisco’s Chinatown, as well as incidents of black magic, sorcery, ghosts and monsters, telling the outsider, “You leave Jack Burton alone! We are in his debt. He showed great courage.”

Marking the fourth collaboration of Carpenter and Russell after THE THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and the TV-movie ELVIS, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains the definition of a cult film. Despite that strong pedigree of talent and exceptionally high audience preview numbers, the film failed to catch fire when it opened for the Fourth of July weekend in 1986. It quickly fizzled, mustering a paltry $11 million grand total at the domestic box office on a substantial budget of approximately $20 million. After his badass turns as Snake Plissken in ESCAPE and R.J. MacReady in THING, no one expected Russell to play against type. BIG TROUBLE was competing in the age of RAMBO-style heroes against such summer films as ALIENS, TOP GUN and COBRA, and those were the kind of heroics audiences were anticipating.

The film’s marketing campaign — or perhaps lack thereof — was also to blame. Carpenter says that, at the time, corporate policy at 20th Century Fox was to spend no more than $3 million on advertising for a film’s opening weekend. These days, a studio will fork out at least a third to half of the film’s budget for their average summer tentpole; it’s their bread-and-butter season. And there was also the tricky element of simplifying the not-easily categorized BIG TROUBLE in order to sell it: “The ads were [like], ‘Who is this, or where is he going?’ And it’s like, ‘Who cares? Who gives a shit?’” says Carpenter.

“I don’t think they knew how to promote it,” agrees Russell, adding with a chuckle, “If they had known how to promote it, I don’t think it would have made a difference. But I think that it’s great that it’s found a cult audience and they love it. … [It’s] not for all audiences, and I think that’s cool.” It wasn’t until BIG TROUBLE hit home video that it found that appreciative group, and positive word of mouth spread from there.

Originally a story about a man who loses his horse in San Francisco, compelling him to enter the mystical Chinese underworld to get it back, BIG TROUBLE was adapted to a modern-day fable by W.D. Richter, who directed 1984’s THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION and wrote the screenplays for such films as Robert Redford’s 1980 prison drama BRUBAKER, the 1978 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and John Badham’s 1979 version of DRACULA with Frank Langella. The horse was changed to Jack Burton’s beloved truck, The Pork Chop Express, and the storyline basics pretty much remained the same. The plot is set in motion when Burton beats his good pal Wang Chi (played by Dennis Dun) at cards. In order to collect his “nothing or double” winnings ($1,148 bucks “times two”), Jack drives Wang to the airport to pick up his fiancee, Miao Yin (played by former Penthouse Pet Suzee Pai), in order to keep an eye on him. When Miao Yin is abducted right in front of them at the terminal by a Chinese street gang, Jack and Wang (now accompanied by Kim Cattrall’s crusader attorney, Gracie Law) give chase and become embroiled in a supernatural battle between good and evil with the nefarious sorcerer Lo Pan (played by James Hong), who must marry a girl with green eyes in order to regain his physical form — and maybe even rule the universe.

James Hong as Lo Pan

“[Jack Burton] thinks he’s a whole lot more capable than he is, he has a big swagger to him,” explains Carpenter of the film’s protagonist, “[and] he hasn’t got a clue what’s going on.” Russell laughs, “He’s really useless. … We wanted to have a guy here that was not quite as sharp as [his friend] was.” From the opening scene in which we see Burton yakking away on his CB radio aboard the Pork Chop Express, it’s clear the man has attitude, a big mouth and perhaps more bravado than brains: “When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if you paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: ‘Have you paid your dues, Jack?’ Yessir, the check is in the mail.”

The Storms: James Pax, Carter Wong and Peter Kwong

But despite his manly presence and a blue-collar intellect, Burton is in way over his head beginning to end, from the moment the Lords of Death street gang bangers break out their weapons/martial arts prowess to the epic final battle between Egg Shen’s posse and Lo Pan’s legion of supernatural guards. “He doesn’t understand this and he’s not ready for it. He looks like he is — he wants to be,” says Carpenter. Jack Burton’s bravado turns out to be a comedy of errors. Three-quarters through the film, after Jack and Wang have rescued Gracie and Miao Yin and are attempting to escape from Lo Pan’s cronies, a major melee breaks out — and Dennis Dun does all the work himself. Jack runs out of ammo and reaches for his boot knife, only to accidentally fling it off-camera and miss the entire fight. Carpenter muses, “I think this is when the studio knew that they might not have gotten the movie that they wanted.” He adds, “The only way I think you get [a positive audience reaction to] this is if you take these kind of risks.”

Kurt Russell and John Carpenter go for comedy

Another risk Carpenter and Russell took for the sake of comedy — resulting in one of the funnier sight gags of the film — was a spontaneous decision on the set. Jack and Gracie kiss, smearing her red make-up all over his lips. He looks ridiculous, and of course he’s oblivious. Carpenter and Kurt thought long and hard about whether or not to keep the unintended gaffe, and Russell recalls, “We even asked ourselves at that point, ‘You’ve got the leading guy… No matter what you’ve done, do you want him going through the next 10 minutes with lipstick on his face? … And we both looked at each other and went, ‘Yeah!’”

Lipstick Jack

Carpenter gives Russell a lot of credit for having the cajones to play a clueless character and look like a fool: “A lot of guys, when you work with them, they have their egos to protect. They’re afraid of taking risks,” says the director. “They’re afraid of looking dumb. … They get scared. I’ve got to give [Russell] the credit for having the courage to do that kind of thing.”

In addition to nervous studio brass and a struggling marketing strategy, another stumbling block for BIG TROUBLE presented itself as Carpenter and Russell were still shooting the film: Asian-American community leaders, who had not yet seen any footage, were worried about stereotyping. Are all the Asian characters going to be martial artists, tour guides, sex traders or brothel workers? Why weren’t there more Asians cast as doctors or lawyers? To that, Russell replies, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an American movie with the [roles reversed from the beginning]. The lead guy in this was Dennis Dun. He knew all the stuff, he knew all the Kung Fu, he knew the terrain. He was the man who knew Indians. And Jack, the American, didn’t know anything. He thought he knew, but he was completely out of it. I was the buffoon.”

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

Even though BIG TROUBLE stumbled big time before eventually finding its audience, the hero-as-sidekick/sidekick-as-hero conceit still manages to poke its head into mainstream cinema — with mixed results. On the plus side, 2010’s KICK-ASS performed admirably at the box office, with the super-charged Hit-Girl (played memorably by Chloe Grace Moretz) emerging as the obvious champ while the title character (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) flails about against the bad guys. The Oscar-winning THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (2001-2003) had many heroes, but in the end it was Sean Astin’s unassuming Hobbit Samwise Gamgee who saved the unlikely protagonist, Frodo (Elijah Wood), from certain death by the nefarious spider Shelob — and then physically carried his poor pal up the last leg of Mt. Doom to toss the One Ring and save Middle-earth from evil. And the canine sidekick of the critically acclaimed WALLACE & GROMIT series often saves his bumbling, unwitting owner with his courage and quick wit in Nick Park’s well-received THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005) and other celebrated Aardman Animation shorts, like THE WRONG TROUSERS and A CLOSE SHAVE, making good use of the formula.

Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto

Then there are the sad examples: 2013’s THE LONE RANGER, with Johnny Depp’s taciturn Tonto emerging as the true hero to Armie Hammer’s mostly useless title character, was widely panned; too many cooks in the kitchen spoiled the hero-as-sidekick conceit, resulting in an overlong, unfocused mess. Two years before that, THE GREEN HORNET saw Jay Chou’s Kato saving Seth Rogen’s pathetic Britt Reid every step of the way (ironically, The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet are familial relations in their respective mythologies. Coincidence?). Both of those reboots featuring heroes from radio’s Golden Age ultimately saw disappointing returns, perhaps signaling that the hero-as-sidekick/sidekick-as-hero formula — while often clever and amusing — continues to go over the audience’s head and remains a game of box-office-poison roulette.

Carpenter’s kisses from Kim Cattrall and Suzee Pai

Despite its cult status, the jury’s still out on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA in terms of its definition of success. Like many of the films they’ve collaborated on, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell were once again a little bit ahead of their time. Yet, if the studio had its way from the beginning and Jack Burton was more of a straightforward hero archetype, with Wang as his real sidekick, the whole satirical dynamic of the film would have been lost, and BIG TROUBLE would have been a very different animal; then those early criticisms from the Asian-American community leaders would be a lot harder to argue.

Either way, the final product speaks for itself, as well as the legions of fans that stand by it. And besides, it’s all in the reflexes.

(This article first appeared in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine issue #278)

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