The Chinese Characters for "Hero" and "caucasian" respectively
Big Trouble in Little China still remains one of the freshest takes on the American action film despite its 1986 release date. It is the anti-action movie. On the surface, Big Trouble plays much like an average 1980’s big budget action flick. The plot is a fairly linear rescue story, the lead is a handsome white male, the action is generally over the top and at times completely ridiculous, there are many one-liners. The depiction of Chinese-American culture that provides the film its unique setting is dangerously close to base exoticism. However, Carpenter’s excellent directing subverts the traditional tropes of the action movie and adds an incredible amount of depth to this work.
Take Jack Burton, ostensibly the main character portrayed by Kurt Russell in arguably his best role. We are introduced to Mr. Burton at first only through vague allusion and the few cryptic lines he broadcasts over his radio in the cab of his truck. The film immediately paints him as a certain type of hero: he is strong, he is mysterious, he is edgy, he is capable, and he is representative of that particular type of American freedom and individualism associated with truck driving. What a surprise it is then when Jack Burton ends up being the most useless action hero of all time.
Throughout the film he barely manages to contribute to the action at all. At one point he manages to knock himself out before a fight even starts, and it is clear that he can neither use his fists well nor adequately operate a gun. He is entirely incompetent in any category that a traditional action hero would be required to excel in. Nevertheless, this does not stop Jack Burton. He speaks in a drawl that unmistakably imitates John Wayne and walks with a swagger reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954). He may not be able to be the hero, but he certainly still acts like one.
Burton’s incompetence creates a very unusual inversion of the standard ideological framework of American action films. Burton, the white male, is essentially a sidekick to Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi, the Asian male. In doing this, Carpenter avoids one of the main traps that so many Hollywood action movies fall into: the trap of American exceptionalism. Too often films like The Last Samurai (2003), and Bloodsport (1988), and TV shows like Kung Fu (1972-75) depict a white male entering into Asian culture and, after a brief period of time has elapsed, becoming the true inheritor of that culture. The ideological assumption is that white men are so capable that you could drop them off in any culture, no matter how foreign and they will not only succeed but excel beyond the capability of those who taught him.
Burton is the exact opposite. He is constantly disoriented within the culture of Chinatown, and he never truly finds his bearings. He is constantly expressing his lack of understanding of the events in the film, and every other character shies away from explaining it to him until it becomes absolutely necessary to do so for the sake of exposition. His personal motivations are much less compelling than those of his friend, Wang Chi, who also happens to be a much more capable fighter and the real hero of the film.
In this way, Big Trouble is the anti-action film. Burton’s complete uselessness is used to draw attention to the ridiculousness of American action movies and to uncover the more damaging ideological implications those films have. Carpenter uses the action flick, usually the most patriotic genre, to critique the idea of the American identity. Burton is essentially a western hero: a somewhat tragic wandering gun for hire with a mysterious and probably violent past who is incapable of fully re-integrating into society. But by making him useless Carpenter criticizes the entire action movie culture that fetishizes those types of men. I hear that there are plans for a remake of Big Trouble. Unfortunately, it is all too possible and most likely probable that the remake will willfully ignore the nuance in Burton’s character in favor of remaking him into a strong, capable hero, ironically falling for the very trap that the original set out to criticize in 1986.