“I’m a reasonable guy. But, I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”
Universal’s disappointment with The Thing motivated their decision to remove Carpenter as director of their Stephen King adaptation Firestarter. Carpenter’s hand was then forced, and he directed the only project that was offered to him; ironically an adaptation of another King novel: Christine.
Michael Douglas defended the outcast filmmaker at this point in his career, hiring him to direct Starman. In Carpenter, Douglas saw more than a one dimensional action director. He saw a stylistic filmmaker, who while adept at action films, he believed could find the emotional heart of the story. In fact, upon reading the script, what had piqued Carpenter’s interest was Starman as a love story, rather than a film about an alien.
Carpenter describes Starman as his penance for The Thing. If prior to Starman, Carpenter was perceived as a director with limitations, its critical success alleviated its moderate commercial performance, appreciated by critics as a different kind of film from the cult action and horror filmmaker. This period in Carpenter’s career was a time in which he was actively not only trying to atone for The Thing and shake off its disappointment, but also prove his versatility as a filmmaker.
For both Douglas and Carpenter it was a marriage made in heaven. Carpenter got the opportunity to atone for his sin, and Douglas got a director who could masterfully handle the emotional and action tones of the film. These were two traits essential to capturing the action drama of characters on the run, amidst a sentimental love story. Compared to the cynicism and violence of his earlier films, and even the sense of hopelessness of his protagonists trapped in claustrophobic hells, Starman showed the tender and sentimental side of the director.
Through the physical humour, especially the physical and emotional performance of Jeff Bridges, coupled with the comedic dialogue, and combined with a few well-conceived action set pieces, it is not far removed from the expectations of the typical John Carpenter film. Whilst Castle brought the humour to the anti-hero Plissken in Escape from New York, Douglas and the writers of Starman gave Carpenter the initial opportunity to present himself as a director without limitations, though this was an opportunity he would fail to capitalise on.
On the merits of Starman, Carpenter was approached by producer Ilya Salking to direct the children’s fantasy film Santa Claus: The Movie. His exhaustive list of demands however led to the offer being retracted, and Carpenter was left with only feelings of regret for comfort. For Carpenter, both The Thing and Santa Claus were the movies that could have changed his career, though if The Thing had not been such a disappointment, the latter may have not featured as a part of his story. In hindsight Carpenter has stated how the children’s fantasy film would have given him the chance to change the critical perception of him as a director with limitations.
Rather than stepping into the world of children’s fantasy, Carpenter would instead go on to make his third studio film, the mystical martial arts action comedy Big Trouble in Little China.
Carpenter kids with Kurt Russell on the Big Trouble in Little China commentary that all of his films were ahead of their time. The Thing is now considered a classic science-fiction horror, and Big Trouble in Little China was successful in finding an audience on video to become a cult classic. So all kidding aside, there is more than a little truth in jest, especially when it comes to both The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China. They were both ahead of their time and Carpenter as a visionary director was not a coincidence. Once may be a coincidence; twice is not coincidental.
Big Trouble in Little China was a pre-cursor to American martial arts action cinema. If that was not enough it also embraced eastern mysticism, looking back to the old kung-fu, Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan films. The use of martial arts makes it the first of its kind, and testifies to Carpenter’s importance to the action genre, something that was evident to Douglas back in the day, whilst still oblivious to many in the present. Too often Carpenter is pigeonholed as a horror director.
Big Trouble in Little China was a box office disappointment, grossing less than half of its $25 million dollar budget. It was neither a commercial nor a critical success. Whilst Starman had not been a major money maker, pressure on Carpenter was alleviated by the critical praise, and the fact that the film made more than its budget; though still not enough to gross an overall profit.
The risk of failure for Carpenter’s third studio effort was compounded by Twentieth Century Fox’s weak marketing campaign. Despite taking out page ads in newspapers and trade publications, Kurt Russell weeks before release was being quizzed by friends on what had happened to the film that he and John had made? Perhaps Fox were too busy hyping James Cameron’s Aliens, released later that year, to commit to Carpenter’s $25 million dollar project, which they happened to hire him to direct.
What most certainly didn’t help the film was its subversive nature, its intelligence. A friend of mine remarked that Last Action Hero was too smart for its own good. I can’t help but think that Big Trouble in Little China’s greatest enemy was itself, a film that was just too smart, or to phrase it better, a film ahead of the curve. At a time when the hero was expected to be a hero, personified by the likes of Russell’s Snake Plissken in the early 80s, and Stallone’s Rambo in the 80s, Jack Burton personified the subversive hero. The gag of the film, which passed over the heads of so many of the few who saw it, was that the film flipped the hero and sidekick. Jack Burton like any other hero believes he can handle himself, and that he is clued in on all the mysticism and shit. He’s ready to be the hero, and that in short is the gag.
The fun thing about Big Trouble is that we are in on the joke. If the actions of the hero are him throwing his knife away, missing the confrontation with the bad guys, shooting the ceiling to rain down concrete on his head, rendering himself unconscious, and emerging from the elevator wearing bright red lipstick; then Jack Burton is cinemas greatest hero. But they are not the actions of the prototypical hero, nor does the hero decline the girl, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall). At the end of the movie Margo asks him, “God, aren’t you even gonna kiss her goodbye?” to which Jack replies “Nope.” In truth this was not the film neither the critics, audience or the studio were expecting, but hey it’s a classic, so as, “Ol’ Jack always says… what the hell?”
The comedy really does come from the mouthy Burton, who talks himself up from the beginning of the film, and throughout. Russell, Carpenter and the screenwriters were aware that they were breaking the rules, and all follow it through, to great effect. Burton had all the bark of the hero, just none of the bite, but to any cine-literate viewer it is comedy gold. If one thinks the exchanges between Hauk and Plissken are laugh out loud funny, then the memorable and literal laugh out loud dialogue of the overconfident Jack Burton gives these guys a run for their money.
Big Trouble in Little China turned out not to be one of the biggest films of the year as predicted. It died a death in cinemas, only to be resurrected on video by an audience who appreciated a visionary film that had taken a chance by breaking the rules and deserved to be rewarded. Carpenter struck out twice with two of his three studio films, and the failure of Big Trouble in Little China led to his return to low budget independent filmmaking; firmly disillusioned by working for the studios, despite the mass market potential of the films.
His first commercial film ended in disappointment, which led to a critically successful but not an overwhelmingly commercial second studio effort, and still Fox committed a $25 million dollar budget for Big Trouble in Little China. Carpenter even scaled down some of the action set pieces to ensure the film came in on budget. Failure was a case of the studio passing the buck. Fox failed to put together a strong marketing campaign amidst the hype of the Alien sequel. Carpenter made a film that was true to the script. It was the studio that failed Carpenter rather than the other way round. Fox thwarted Carpenter’s efforts to build on his studio success with Columbia’s 1984 Starman.
Santa Claus was both a critical and commercial disaster. Though, which out of Big Trouble in Little China and Santa Claus would have been the better disaster for Carpenter poses an interesting question. The failure of Santa Claus may have kept open commercial opportunities through actively changing the critical perception of him as a limited director. On the other hand Big Trouble in Little China was an important cult action martial arts comedy, and despite commercial failure it led to Prince of Darkness and They Live; two cult classics in the John Carpenter repertoire.
Big Trouble in Little China is a film every parent should introduce their kids to, whilst waiting a little longer to introduce them to The Thing. We want to preserve those early years of enjoyment, running around with the family dog, which let’s face it, once they have seen The Thing, they’ll never look at the dog the same way again. To any parents reading this, introduce your kids to John Carpenter sooner rather than later. I had to wait too long to discover him, and I look back and wonder how I ever got by without John Carpenter in my life? Do you want the same for your kids?