A recent article published in The Guardian happened to catch my eye - it was entitled "Cult films: just bad movies in a good disguise?"
Now that is a headline that turns my head immediately; even more so when the picture below is a screen shot from 1986's John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China
. OK, an intriguing title for an article AND some talk about John Carpenter's East-meets-West genre mash-up? I'm hooked! What a shame then that my heart sank upon reading the sub-heading:
The 'Cult Classic' label can mean many things: from an underappreciated gem to an out-and-out stinker with sentimental value attached. But Big Trouble in Little China just sucks.
Ouch... "May the wings of liberty never lose a feather."
There is no denying it - this stung me. Big Trouble in Little China is, without hesitation, my favorite John Carpenter movie of all time. I'm not saying it is the best by any means, as it would be difficult to put BTiLC up against The Thing or Halloween. Nonetheless this remains my favorite movie that he has produced, so it will come as no surprise that I am about to put forward my case for the defense of this funny and subversive movie - as well as possibly enlightening a few on some of its more subtle pleasures.
The article's writer, Joe Queenan, is actually one of my favorite writers for The Guardian. And this piece is a great example of his work, with some excellent insight in the world of the cult movie and the inexplicable love these films create amongst their audiences. But time and again, he sticks the knife into BTiLC - occasionally twisting it a little to keep the wound from sealing. First of all, he decides to attack the movie's star, Kurt Russell. Talk about going for the kill!
"... he can't act, he walks and runs in an odd, lumbering way and he always sports the worst hair of the era that he happens to be living through. "
Yes, Mr Queenan is talking about the Emmy and Golden Globe nominated Kurt Russell! Now I know many will instantly leap to Russell's defense, citing Snake Plissken, Elvis and MacCready as roles that only he can play (the recent rumors of an Escape From New York reboot shows how vocal people are about it). But I put forward the very performance that is most under scrutiny here as the best example of Russell's skill as an actor - a Hollywood star cleverly subverting his own macho image. For those who have not seen BTiLC, (get a copy NOW!) skip to the next section as there may be spoilers here... But Russell's performance as Jack Burton is a brilliantly realized take on the American hero. Apart from a couple of key moments in the film, Burton is for all intent and purpose the idiotic sidekick. Dennis Dun's Wang Chi takes the lead in nearly all the major action sequences, but it is the blustering, philosophy-spouting American who is portrayed (mostly by himself, but also by everyone else!) as the main hero in spite of the evidence. On the DVD commentary, both Russell and Carpenter stress that this was by design, too. Russell is knowingly critiquing and mocking his macho background for laughs - and it works brilliantly. I would also be so bold as to suggest that Carpenter is taking a rather playful swing at American foreign policy here - all big guns and bravado, careening all over the place but managing to get the job done in the end and still getting painted as the hero! Jack Burton is one of Kurt Russell's finest creations BECAUSE he is self-deluded, dumb and rather useless in a fight (just like so many of us, including myself). "He says it's The Storms... The Three Storms..."
Oh, and by the way - Jean Claude Van Damme EASILY sports worse hair than Kurt Russell any day (I love Van Damme too, but that is another story).
One of the key factors for this response to Mr Qeenan's article is that there is no real reason stated for his dislike for BTiLC... He merely says that it sucks. Understandably there is little room for one film in a piece that covers cult movies as a genre of its own, so it seems fair to go back and look at how critics initially responded to the movie in order to grasp why some people dislike it so much. And yet the reviews are less sniff about the film than one might remember. In fact, many noted the conscious self-mockery that Carpenter and Russell are exuding on the screen - sending up every Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu cliché around. But Mr Queenan is certainly not alone when it comes to missing the gag, as even the late great Roger Ebert criticized the film for focusing too much on spectacle and effects than on character and story (doesn't this sound familiar when talking about big budget movies?). And in all fairness to them, they are not wrong sometimes. Even though I love BTiLC, there is definitely a lack of palpable danger to our adventurers - it all seems more of a fun rollercoaster than a nail-biting thrill ride (something Carpenter and Russell discuss on the commentary). There are a few gags that are really weak, even by my standards, and there are far too many secondary characters that seem to be there just to fill the screen space. Is it too much to ask, Thunder? Kill him, for me!"
However there is one key issue that critics like Mssrs Queenan and Ebert seem to miss - and that is regarding the American take on the martial arts film. Do not get me wrong, I am in now way claiming that BTiLC is even on the same planet as the great kung-Fu movies like Fist of Fury, Drunken Master or Once Upon a Time in China. But Carpenter was heavily influenced by the likes of the Shaw Brothers and Lo Wei, with the biggest influence on BTiLC being Tsui Hark's 1983 fantasy Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain - from its flying martial arts (to be made widely popular by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to its mystical warriors shooting lightening and thunderbolts at each other. For example Carpenter states that they didn't have the budget for complex wire work, hence the use of trampolines to show his characters flying through the air in mid-fight (for me, of the most endearing qualities of the movie). It is this love for, not disdain for, martial arts movies that is reflected for many on the screen and ramps up the enjoyment levels to the max.
My particular favorite topic that Mr Queenan picks up on is the unusual mindset that cult audiences have. He discusses the strong sense of both pride and privacy towards their cult movies. They wish for more people to appreciate these "masterpieces" as much as they do, but in private they don't want too many to love them, for fear of ruining their appeal:
"Cult films are like Brooklyn: things were great until the investment bankers found out."
He argues that perhaps that these cult film fans know that if too many people do actually watch their favorite movies, their point of view will be invalidated by a reapeat of history. For many of these films, they were box office disasters and that it was VHS/DVD that sacked them and elevated them to exalted status. What if these films really are that bad? And it is very easy to agree with him. But for me, I want as many people to see BTiLC as possible. I do not care whether people like it or hate it, but I will feel immense pride if I have allowed just one more person to take this "masterpiece" and keep it in their heart as I do. I am not afraid of people who dislike this movie, Mr Queenan... I simply ask for others to give it a chance.
So in conclusion, Joe Queenan makes a fine article on what constitutes a cult movie. He is, however, completely wrong about Kurt Russell and Big Trouble in Little China. Russell was and will always be one of my favorite Hollywood stars, who is criminally underused in current times. His on screen charisma and personable charm easily outweighs the plastic, dull crop of current crop of young leading men on the big screen. And BTiLC s one of the most entertaining and godamn fun movies to come out of the 80s. Maybe the studio suits had no idea how to sell the movie to its audiences (the opening scene was shot after principle photography in order to make Jack Burton more heroic than in the initial cut), maybe the cast and crew were having too much fun in production - but I would argue that each and every ounce of enjoyment is up there on screen for audiences to lap up with glee. And what would ol' Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express say to Mr Queenan? He'd look him squarely in the eye and say:
"GIVE ME YOUR BEST SHOT, PAL... I CAN TAKE IT!"
"It's all in the reflexes..."