Movie critics can say what they want in public or in print about classic cinema -- in private, most of us acknowledge that the greatest movie ever made is "Big Trouble In Little China," released 25 years ago this week.
I had a chance to talk BTILC with director John Carpenter earlier this year when he accepted a local film festival award. He remembers the movie fondly, but making it for an uncomprehending studio was a chore.
"What the studio wanted was 'Indiana Jones." I didn't see that. I saw it as way to get into the asian cinema that I loved. I wanted to make a kung fu movie, something that was fun to watch," he said.
There is another layer, added by writer W.D. Richter, who'd just written and directed the deeply post-modern "Buckaroo Banzai" -- like BTILC, a movie that was ahead of its time and now a cult favorate. He brought a simillar level of irony to "China" which pokes fun at the putative lead (Kurt Russell) a trucker, Jack Burton, who must fight his way through a supernatural Chinatown underground to retrieve his missing rig.
Russell does a send-up of John Wayne, and BTILC subverts the idea of the of the big-bicep American hero -- keep in mind this is middle of the roided-up eighties, dominated by Schwarzenegger and Stallone. "We wanted to out-Rambo Rambo," Carpenter said.
"The thing abouty Jack is he has no ability whatsoever. He can't do anything. He's just this big blowhard who sounds like John Wayne and is out of his depth. And we take the asian sidekick cliche and turn it on it's head."
Burton is constantly bailed out in BTILC by his Chinese-American allies, something that appealed more to Carpenter that to the studio guys he showed it to.
"They were expecting Indiana Jones and they get this very weird movie. They wanted me to cut the comedy scenes."
When I pointed out cutting the comedy scenes out of a comedy was impossible, Carpenter said, "You'd be surprised. They cut them out, then they asked me to put them back in. They had no idea what they wanted."
The studio never figured out how to sell the movie, and audiences didn't seem to know what to make of it. It made only a few million in theaters, far less than its $25 million budget, a decent sum at the time. Over time, as tastes caught up to the movie's action-with-a-wink point-of-view, and "Big Trouble" is now one of Carpenter's most beloved. He's never lost his affection for it.
"It was a hoot to make."