Friday, November 18, 2016
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), VAMPIRES (1996)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, though it's a cult-film now, failed at the box-office and so marked the general decline of director John Carpenter's fortunes as a commercial film director.
Much though I enjoyed it, I don't have a lot to say about the film. When I saw it in theatrical release, its breakneck speed somewhat annoyed me. It seemed to me that Carpenter didn't want to spend any time justifying his wild story of Chinese wizards and martial arts cults, for fear of breaking the effervescent, take-everything-on-its-own terms pulp-aesthetic. After repeated viewings, I've gotten used to the pacing, and can enjoy Carpenter's attempt to keep some sort of fantastic apparitions in front of the viewers' eyes at every time. Despite a downbeat, if slightly ambivalent, ending, TROUBLE shows a visual creativity and a comic flair that resembles nothing else in the director's oeuvre, least of his preceding hit with TROUBLE-star Kurt Russell, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.
I have a dim recollection that Carpenter once claimed he was sending up a species of Hollywood adventure-films, particularly GUNGA DIN, in which Caucasian heroes were seen cutting an easy swath through armies of little brown opponents. This coheres with the representation of lead hero Jack Burton (Russell): almost all of the Asian characters, into whose feuding world Burton stumbles, can fight better than he can. When Burton does manage to give a good account of himself, at least some of his victory stems from dumb luck. He's still identifiable enough to be a hero, rather than the spoof of a hero-- but of course Russell's dead-on John Wayne emulation always undercuts the adventure somewhat. In Kim Cattrall, Victor Wong and Dennis Dun the star gets much more appealing allies this time, in contrast to ESCAPE, while James Hong stands out as Carpenter's best villain.
1996's VAMPIRES (I'll pass on using the possessive "John Carpenter's") is like BIG TROUBLE an ensemble-like film in which one major character leads a bunch of lesser sidekicks against a common enemy. In my mini-review of the original book by John Steakley, I found that the author went so overboard with his nattering about the male bonding between the kickass vampire killers that he neglected to make their battle against a "super-vampire" compelling. Carpenter seems to have kept about the first three-fourths of the book's main plot and deep-sixed most of the rambling asides I didn't like.
This time, while main hero Jack Crow still works with a bunch of male vamp-hunters, most of them aren't given much to do in the non-action scenes, which is all to the good. The one exception is the character of Montoya, who becomes Crow's primary buddy. James Woods and Daniel Baldwin make all the "cowboy samurai" stuff go down easy, and Carpenter ups the ante on the action-scenes that the original author neglected. That said, no one in the film is particularly appealing, even within the sphere of the "tough professional" ethos being evoked here. VAMPIRES also failed to "stake" any claims at the American box office, and despite an energetic Woods performance, doesn't seem to have taken on cult status as yet.