Screens From a master of the genre ... 

A glassful of beer will help the schlock go down when Alamo screens this ’80s travesty

How does one explain the cult of John Carpenter? Big Trouble in Little China is — despite the fact that it seems to be much beloved among those in a certain age bracket — certainly not the first piece of evidence you’d pull up in his defense.

Those who tout Carpenter as a master of suspense must pretend this 1986 effort didn’t happen, looking instead to his ridiculously enjoyable remake of The Thing or the iconic Halloween. Those who appreciate his way of doing more with fewer resources would be embarassed by Big Trouble’s surplus of special effects, preferring to watch Assault on Precinct 13 for the dozenth time. Fans of his egotistical habit of “composing” his own soundtracks, of course, need few examples other than Halloween.

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A pre-Sex and the City Kim Cattrall and a mulletted Kurt Russell ham it up in John Carpenter’s super-unnatural take on Chinatown, screening one night only, November 17, at the Alamo Drafthouse.

No, if you want to place the film in the “plus” column of Carpenter’s filmography at all (instead of simply attributing its popularity to grown-up mall rats who happened to be impressionable at the time of its release), you have to go with the defense that Carpenter’s quirky sense of humor (first apparent in his homemade Dark Star and surfacing in odd places over the years) carries what would otherwise be a disposable piece of mid-’80s flotsam.

Good luck with that.

Big Trouble in Little China is one goofy movie that holds little appeal for those who weren’t there the first time around and don’t subscribe to the notion that Carpenter is a serious auteur. (How seriously can you take somebody who insists on titling every one of his films John Carpenter’s...?) That being said, a theatrical screening at the Alamo Drafthouse November 17, where adult beverages are on hand to make the mess easier to swallow, may not be a bad idea.

Big Trouble in Little China

Dir. John Carpenter; writ. Gary Goldman & David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter; feat. Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton (PG-13)

Longtime Carpenter resource Kurt Russell leads the pack here, putting his best John Wayne drawl on a macho character in whom chauvinism and bombast substitute for any obvious skills. Russell’s Jack Burton is a trucker trying to get a Chinatown pal to make good on a gambling debt when he stumbles into a gang mix-up. His buddy’s green-eyed fiancée is kidnapped, apparently to be sold as a sex slave, but things quickly get much more fantastic than mere flesh trade.

The version of San Francisco’s Chinatown seen here is sci-fi chop-socky schlock viewed through a comic book-pulp novel lens and slicked up for ’80s multiplex tastes. Warring gangs are trounced by a trio of supernatural warriors who wear crazy hats and throw lightning from their hands. Sewers lead to mysterious lairs where a wizened wizard has waited centuries to break a spell. Russell and his innocent Chinese sidekick (let’s not get started on the movie’s retro, un-PC approach to racial stereotypes) must rescue two women from the wizard, who intends to marry and then murder them. Will they succeed? Will the movie rise above all this silliness and make us care about it?

Forget it, Jack, it’s Chinatown.

By John DeFore


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