John Carpenter’s Subversion

When people talk about John Carpenter’s best work, the examples usually given are either Halloween or The Thing. Both excellent choices. Me, I always go with Big Trouble in Little China. It may be one of the best, most subtle parodies in movie history.

It’s so slick about its satire, that it’s own main character doesn’t even know he’s a caricature.  From wikipedia:

“Carpenter envisioned the film as an inverse of traditional scenarios in action films with a Caucasian protagonist helped by a minority sidekick. In Big Trouble in Little China, Jack Burton, despite his bravado, is constantly portrayed as rather bumbling; in one fight sequence he even knocks himself unconscious before the fight begins. Wang Chi, on the other hand, is constantly portrayed as highly skilled and competent.”

Just to remove any imagined heroics, that’s lipstick on Russell’s mouth, not blood.

John Carpenter manages this send up of action movies through careful manipulation of semiotics, most importantly the idea of stereotypes. This is enforced by the studio’s repetition of billing Kurt Russell as the star. We think, therefore that his character is more important.


Yeah, stereotypes, which means pretty much what it makes you think. Stereotypes, writes Sean Hall, is (albeit perhaps reductive) an interpretation tool used to get a message across.

Which would you call the hero in this picture, going off size, implied physicality, race?

Looking at the picture of Kurt Russell and Dennis Dun, stereotypes lead us to conclude that based on color, size, etc, Russell will be the hero.

We know how action movies go. The hero swaggers in, encounters problem, epic fight, wins girl.

Let’s watch the trailer.

Let’s think about what we expect from heroes in movies. Is Russell’s actions heroic?

Let’s look at how sidekicks are usually portrayed in movies. They serve, through their lack of grace, to emphasize the hero’s good traits.

While Dennis Dun’s (Wang Chi) character remains calm and collected, and approaches the problem with a plan; Russell’s bounces from emotional extremes, throws himself headlong into situations, and really doesn’t have a clue about how to get himself out of trouble.

Dun gets the girl. Russell doesn’t. Dun, great mid-air swordfight. Russell throws a lucky knife and kills the big baddie, and little time is spent in this moment.

But Hollywood tradition is white lead, poc sidekick. Despite the established codes for how to read Caucasian/POC male relationships in action movies (Caucasian in position of power), we can see through his dialogue with Dennis Dun, and his character’s actions, that Russell is playing the fool.

Even more challenging, he is the white sidekick convinced he is the hero. He’s expected to assume he’s in charge. Why wouldn’t he be?  (This is is again stereotype at play.)

And John Carpenter knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s playing against audience expectations (ie Russell as hero) by design. This is shown through Kurt Russell’s thoughts on his character after talking to the director for insight on the role. ” Jack is and isn’t the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He’s a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up…Furthermore,” the actor felt that “at heart he thinks he’s Indiana Jones but the circumstances are always too much for him”

The movie opened to mixed reviews, leading (or cementing) Carpenter’s disillusionment with Hollywood, and I have to wonder if the reception was in part to due to the unsettling subervision of stereotypes.


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