There’s currently a firestorm blazing the Internet over the news that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will be playing the iconic Jack Burton in the remake of Big Trouble in Little China. It’s something like the green firestorm of Lo Pan’s as the fanboys sink their vicious claws into The Rock.
Now, I’m not a fan of remakes, but admittedly there are many good remakes throughout Hollywood’s history. The funny thing is, John Carpenter himself had done a 1982 remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World, and the result was one of the best science fiction-horror movies of all time.
Let’s face it, The Rock can make any movie watchable. The guy has oodles of charisma that leap off the screen, and the fact that he’s a guy who’s hard to hate gives me hope that the remake of Big Trouble could be at least passable. (He’s also done a remake, 2004’s Walking Tall, which begs the question, has no one been spared by the remake machine?)
The real big trouble with the Big Trouble remake is that 20th Century Fox has enlisted the writers of the horrifically bad X-Men: First Class to pen the script. This alone does not bode well for the project. And taking into account that the original Big Trouble was really a subversion of the then-commonly racist movie tropes involving Asians, and the recent trouble with Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, well you get the point.
So what I really want to talk about is what Carpenter’s kungfu-comedy got right. I think the film for which Big Trouble is the most appropriate foil, is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Spielberg’s ultimate 80s boiling cauldron of all that’s wrong with Asian representation in films, made 2 years before Big Trouble, played up the exotica and mysticism of Asian culture and the perception of the Weird Other. Asians, it seems, had a disgusting diet, were cruel and violent, and were always good for some laughs.
Compare Indy and his sidekick Short Round, the Vietnamese kid who acts funny and talks even funnier, with Jack Burton and his Chinese friend Wang. Wang, played by Dennis Dun, speaks perfect English and Chinese, and isn’t even relegated to mere sidekick but is an equal to Jack, if not more competent than him.
The thing about Big Trouble is that its Asian exotica and mysticism are deliberate elements of camp that represent Chinese culture as filtered through western sensibilities. It is not an end representation, therefore it’s clearly self-aware. It is everything that western audiences see in classic kungfu movies, a heightened reality, not hyperreal.
What Carpenter had done was to pay real homage to Asian action movies, creating a real kungfu movie set in America without hijacking what is necessary or jettisoning respect and reason. Instead, it’s the Caucasian characters that are often (and appropriately) out of place in an Asian setting.
Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton is the goofy hero (as goofy as his love interest played by Kim Cattrall), who is never the real tough guy, but a guy who only pretends to be tough. He gets knocked out cold by his own hand before a big battle. And in one scene that totally turns the table on the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark where an Arab threateningly swings his swords only to have Indy pull out a gun and shoot him (a scene often read as an arrogant representation of American superiority in the Middle East and the backwardness of Arabs), Jack runs out of bullets in the middle of a fight, and comes back fully loaded only when Wang has finished off their opponents.
Another scene offsets and underlines the arrogance of having Asian characters talk funny in movies. When Jack asks if a bunch of Chinese gang members were savvy with the English language, one of them replies, in English, “Hey, man, who’s this guy?”
Also, none of the characters, not even the evil magician Lo Pan, spews Zen-like wisdom. Remember, this movie was made in the age of The Karate Kid and Mr Miyagi. In fact, Wang, at one point, tells Jack that even though the Chinese supposedly grew up with the legend of Lo Pan being subjugated by China’s first emperor Shi Huangdi, Wang himself hardly knows the story.
It’s difficult to see how the writers of the remake will be able to pull off Carpenter’s level of subversion. It’s easy to see The Rock playing the opposite of his usual tough-hero role; he’s surely not above self-deprecation. But the complexity of Carpenter’s campy revision of America’s perception of the Exotic Asian and the Great White Hero is a tough act to follow.