John Carpenter is considered to be a horror director, which is a fair comment in the main. But with films like Starman, Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Big Trouble in Little China also under his belt, he is also accomplished with more fantastical fare as well.

It is the latter of those which I am writing about here and why it connects with me in the way it does. I was already a Carpenter fan by the time I saw this having seen the likes of Escape from New York, Christine, The Fog, Halloween and of course The Thing. But BTILC was a real curveball of a movie when it came out. Especially when you were used to his low lighting, slow paced style. Only really did The Thing deviate from that early John Carpenter look and feel.

But BTILC was all about garish colour, special (or in some cases not so special) FX, one liners and mythology in a way he’d never outwardly explored before. Yet at its heart its still very much a John Carpenter film. The character base is strong and likeable, he has defined good guys and bad guys (even Snake Plissken has an obvious moral compass), the camera work is often still and methodical (even in fight scenes he’s not throwing the camera around trying to create a kinetic energy) and its stays in its located area. It was only really Starman up until 1992’s Memoirs in that the characters really travelled throughout the film.

The thing I love most about BTILC is how unapologetically insane it is. It hangs a sign on the front saying “seriously suspend your disbelief here” and you do. And at its centre a hero so unheroic that you could actually imagine being Jack Burton. And as a kid I think this is one of the things that endeared me so much to this film. Jack was normal and was all mouth. “It’s all in the reflexes” he says after looking exceptionally surprised he managed to catch a bottle that was hurtling at his face. “I was born ready” before actually getting in trouble and not having a clue what to do about it.

This was also an early introduction for me to a more Asian related fantasy. Things such as the storms and Lo Pan being stuck in an aging body and needing to marry a girl with green eyes to break the curse was off the wall nuts to me at the time. But Carpenter mixed the Asian mythology storytelling with an American style making it more palatable for a mainstream audience. He managed to get across these ideas and took you along for the ride even if it was one of the more bonkers things you’d seen. I’d been watching fantasy films for as long as I’d been watching films but rarely were they put into an adult based, grounded reality. It was usually kids or adults in fantastical worlds.

The thing is, I know now these are all reasons I loved the film but as a 10/11 year old I had no idea these were all things to know about. In my adolescent brain it was all about one thing. Jack Burton. For me Gary Goldman and David Weinstein gave him some of the best dialogue Carpenter has ever put on screen. Eminently quotable, effortlessly likeable (although that was as much to do with Kurt Russell’s delivery of the character as it was the words on the page) and incredibly flawed. All of Russell’s collaborations with Carpenter have had him as the reluctant hero, the only notable exception with Jack Burton is that he was a bit rubbish at it too. Which made him all the more watchable and relatable.

Watching it now, it is an incredibly cheesy film and visually suffers at times because of the quality of the FX but it has such a sense of fun that coming to it as a first time watch I still think it would win people over.

It’s full of magic, monsters, warriors, heroes, villains and trucks! Well one truck. But it’s a very important truck in the story. It’s the only reason Jack gets himself involved in a world which he knows nothing about. The interplay between the characters just oozes charisma and gives, for me, one of Kim Cattrall’s best roles.

And hey if all that isn’t enough reason for this film to be loved then it was the film which introduced us to Al Leong (if you don’t recognise the name then you’ll probably know him as the guys that eats the chocolate bar in Die Hard as they face off against the cops trying to get into the building or Genghis Khan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). So for that alone surely it earns its rightful affection.

 

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