Here’s a John Carpenter movie I somehow never reviewed before. Kurt Russell plays Jack Burton, a loudmouthed truck driver who stops in Chinatown to gamble with an old buddy, and ends up stuck in the middle of a gang war, an ancient prophecy, magic powers, monsters, etc.
The opening scene of the movie is classic. It fades in on Egg Shen, the driver of a tour bus in Chinatown, being interviewed by a lawyer about “what happened.” We know that something big and crazy happened, that a whole block erupted into “green flames,” and that people want to know where “Jack Burton and his truck” are. Shen admits that he believes in Chinese black magic and when the lawyer asks why he should believe in it Shen holds up his hands and shoots bolts of green lightning between them. “See?” he says. “That was nothing. But that’s how it always begins. Very small.” Then it cuts to a shot of a truck as the opening credits begin, and you realize “okay, a truck. This must be that Jack Burton they were so concerned about.” Classic!
So I was kind of surprised to learn from the commentary track that the scene was a concession to the studio. Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of Fox at the time, demanded and helped write the scene to make Jack Burton seem “more heroic.” Which is kind of going against the whole joke of the movie that he’s the main character but not exactly the hero. His buddy Wang (Dennis Dun) is smaller than him and seems like the sidekick, but is actually far more capable than him. This is probaly Carpenter’s most overtly comedic movie and that idea of this blowhard thinking he’s the reluctant hero when he’s actually not doing much is where alot of the laughs come from. For example during one of the big fights he fires his gun in the air causing a piece of the ceiling to break off, fall on his head and knock him out while the others do battle. Later he confidently pulls out a knife and you think “How does he know how to throw knives?” but then he throws it and in fact he doesn’t know how – it flops through the air and bounces off a gong.
And come to think of it, his adventures don’t begin “very small” either. Unless you consider gangsters kidnapping Wang’s girlfriend at the airport and luring them into a gun, sword and magic battle with people flying around shooting lightning to be “very small.” So I guess I can see how that opening scene doesn’t fit. I still think it’s a badass way to start the movie, though.
I’ve watched this movie many times since the ’80s and I’ve always enjoyed it, but I gotta admit it’s not as streamlined as the better John Carpenter pictures. In the middle section it gets pretty repetitive and hung up in that ’80s adventure movie thing where the characters have to climb around through an ancient underground structure with secret passages, traps and chutes (at least this one doesn’t look like a waterslide like they usually do). One way Carpenter makes it stand out from the other movies of this type though is the great special effects for the occasional monster or weird transformation. There’s a part where a guy puffs himself up like a balloon that looks pretty amazing, and even more impressive is when the villain Lo Pan glows from inside his head – I’m not even sure how they did that. And it also stands out by not treating these supernatural acts with any reverance. Whenever Jack sees another impossible sight he gets pissed off and starts ranting about it. When they face off with a big levitating ball of flesh covered in eyes called a “Guardian” Jack shoots it in the nose and says “You never know until you try.”
I also gotta admit it’s kind of a throwback to the racist days of Fu-Man Chu and Charlie Chan and Dragon Ladies and Opium Dens, the Exotic Mysteries of the Orient and What Have You. But I don’t know, I’d be interested to know what any of my readers of Chinese descent think of it. It does have the spooky old creep with long fingernails doing magic, but the rest of the bad guys are all pretty badass. And it’s got the lovable old Egg Shen who’s definitely a stereotype, but the rest of the good guys are more down to earth.
There’s better martial arts than your usual American movie of the time. The Three Storms, with their giant shinobi hats and wire-fu floating powers, seem like something out of an authentic martial arts film more than an American studio film. That said, it’s not like a great Shaw Brothers movie or something. That stuff is more like background mayhem for the real attraction, which is Jack Burton.
For Snake Plissken Russell seemed to be channeling Clint Eastwood, Jack Burton talks a little more like John Wayne. But he’s much more of an egomaniac and a doofus than Wayne ever played. It’s a really funny character, so not surprisingly fans still dream of a sequel. The only problem is that not only is Jack reluctant, he’s not very effective. So it’s not like if there was some new problem that came up they would need his help. I just learned that they did come close to making a sequel in ’95, but it would’ve been a TV movie, and skimming through the script it looks like they didn’t even include the character of Jack! I’m not sure why anybody would want to see that.
The out of print DVD from Anchor Bay is a good one because it has a funny commentary track with both Carpenter and Russell. Russell sure laughs alot. This is the one where Russell goes off on a long tangent about his son’s hockey team before suddenly remembering that he’s doing a commentary track and that people might not be interested in that. The DVD also has a hilarious music video for the theme song – hilarious because it shows John Carpenter himself singing and rocking out. His bandmates in The Coup De Villes are Tommy Lee Wallace (writer/director of HALLOWEEN III and VAMPIRES: LOS MUERTOS) and Nick Castle (the original Michael Meyers and director of THE LAST STARFIGHTER). I do not recommend watching this movie when you’re sick like I did though, because having that song looped all night in your fever dreams is worse than when the same thing happened to me with the ROCKY theme. Under normal health conditions though this is a goofy but worthwhile viewing experience.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.