In 1988's Die Hard—probably the most perfect and pure American action movie ever made—we met Bruce Willis's John McClane, a different kind of action hero. McClane wasn't an ultra-capable superman, but instead a resourceful, slippery, one-liner-slinging everyman, not to mention, sometimes, a smarmy asshole. Action heroes had been quick with one-liners before—it was an essential part of the Schwarzenegger persona for much of his career. But McClane's wit functioned in different ways. He wasn't dramatically killing bad-guy underlings and then giving sitcom laugh-lines. He was muttering jokes to himself, not us, and he was doing it because he was in deep over his head, doing whatever he could to keep himself sane. But he wasn't the first.
Two years before Die Hard, we met Kurt Russell's Jack Burton, another all-attitude action hero. Like McClane, Burton was an ordinary man thrust into an impossible situation, trying to stay alive and keep his loved ones safe while facing down a baffling evil. Compared to Burton, though, Willis was lucky. McClane only had to deal with an office building full of money-grubbing terrorist masterminds, not an ancient Chinese sorcerer and his cadre of demons and super-powered kung-fu warriors. And McClane had the luxury of not being an absolute fuckup.
John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China is, in a lot of ways, a comedy, and its central joke—its only joke, really—was that Burton thinks he's a swaggering hero, when in reality, he's a sidekick at best and a well-meaning liability at worst. His friend Wang Chi is the movie's real hero, and everyone but Burton seems to realize it. Burton slips, pratfalls, opens the wrong doors, drives into blind alleys, hits on Kim Cattrall at the worst possible moments. After he shoots someone, a fellow hero asks if that's his first killshot, and he acts all insulted and says, "Of course not," even though it obviously is. Before one climactic battle, he pointlessly fires his gun at the ceiling, dislodges some debris, and then gets knocked out when stuff falls on him. He's a total boob.
Burton is a long-haul trucker, and when he first comes onscreen, he's spewing cool-guy nonsense aphorisms into his CB radio. He only springs into action because Wang Chi owes him money from a gambling debt, and because he ends up tagging along (as one does) as Wang picks up his fiancée, a Chinese girl Wang hasn't seen in years, from the airport. When a Chinatown gang shows up and kidnaps said fiancée— pulling guns and knives in the arrivals terminal, and getting away without any airport-security problems—it seems random and far-fetched, but the movie will end before we see another scene that sober and plausible.
Carpenter always wanted to make a kung-fu movie, a Hollywood take on the grand, transcendent silliness that Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio cranked out throughout the '70s. Big Trouble also has traces of Indiana Jones-esque mystic adventure and Stallone/Schwarzenegger-style gun worship. More than anything, though, it's a prime example of high-'80s cocaine logic at work. Scenes careen into each other without even bothering with continuity. A shrimp-monster pops out of a wall and eats a faceless good guy, without explanation. A trio of super-powered kung-fu demigods descend into a Chinatown gun battle and starts indiscriminately killing guys on both sides. The final battle takes place in the wedding chapel within a sorcerer's ancient crypt, and it's naturally got all-neon decor. A floating spherical face, covered in dozens of eyeballs, opens up its mouth to reveal that there's another eyeball in there. It's all utterly nonsensical, and it's glorious.
The movie never really makes a point of it, but plenty of its bad guys are just as hilariously ineffective as Burton. Throughout, we're supposed to look at the lightning-spraying kung-fu guy as a major threat, but he never actually hits anyone with the lightning, and he ends up buried in rubble he easily could've avoided. Later on, we meet a shambling monster, a Sasquatch with a Cryptkeeper face, but it's neutralized when—I swear to God—Kim Cattrall kicks it in the shin. Even the villain's most badass, invincible henchman eventually decides, for reasons I'm still unclear on, to inflate himself into a spherical flesh-mass and, in a Garbage Pail Kids-worthy visual, explode.
By most accounts, the movie's entire production was an absolute mess. Its original screenwriters intended it to be a Western, though the only evidence of that is Russell's affected John Wayne drawl. Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson were both offered the Jack Burton role; you will short-circuit your brain if you even try to imagine the final product with either of those guys in there. Carpenter clashed with studio heads over exactly how much of a hapless dumbass Burton should be, with one exec stapling on the (pretty great) introductory scene only to make Burton seem like more of a swell guy. The whole thing was rushed so that it could beat Eddie Murphy's similarly muddled The Golden Child into theaters, and it ended up flopping anyway. It stands as a monument to Hollywood-system confusion, but it's still a remarkably fun piece of work if you can submit yourself completely to its lunacy.
The main reason the whole thing works is Russell, who gamely mugs his way through it, willing to look like an absolute ass, because his idiocy is the engine that powers the whole thing. A few years earlier, in Carpenter's Escape From New York, Russell had played one of the all-time icy badasses in film history. But he really established his persona here, an affable-lunkhead vibe that would carry him through an IMDB page that looks pretty great now. He spends the entire movie in '80s cool-guy uniform—cowboy boots, lightly feathered hair, Japanese-flag muscle shirt tucked into tight jeans. He fires Uzis and keeps a hunting knife clamped between his teeth. But there's always a certain sparkle in his eye, a knowing self-awareness that turns out to be just the right tone for his amazing-idiot character. And honestly, it's good that Big Trouble in Little China makes no sense at all. If it made sense, would Burton's confusion be as funny as it is?
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies.Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master