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The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…
To my mind, Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy films have generated some truly amazing, cinematic heroes.
Their respective genres often require a certain tongue-in-cheek approach to keep even the most amazing scenarios accessible to viewers. In turn, the antagonists are often forces of darkness, presented via as supernatural/scientifically enhanced/mythological creatures. This means that the heroes of these genres often have to be serious bad-asses to overcome the odds and save the day.
So in effect, these genre heroes need to be really great at fighting evil yet still self-aware enough for us to enjoy their ride into the fantastical.
These sorts of protagonists do exist in Hollywood films too. Look at Will Smith’s Jay from Men In Black to Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates Of The Caribbean series, to the classic character of Indiana Jones himself.
Yet in Hollyweird films, the protagonists are not held back by ratings or conventional plots. The stranger little films of the world can feature wise cracking, tough son-of-guns of a whole different breed.
I have no qualms about proclaiming Ash Williams the greatest Hollyweird hero in cinematic history. Ash, the protagonist of the three current Evil Dead films, is many things. He is a braggart, a loser, clumsy, dumb but he is, ultimately, one tough mother-trucker. When it comes to a mix of comedy and violence, nobody really tops Ash.
Still, there are other notably strong heroes of the same mould. Roddy Piper’s shockingly straight performance as Nada in They Live gives his role a sense of genuine attitude. Buckaroo Banzai (see Hollyweird XIX) is perhaps too amazing at everything to be any fun. Reggie, the Ice Cream Vendor with a four-barrelled shotgun, from the Phantasm series is certainly as much of a dude that any bald, folk singing Ice Cream man can be. The mighty Lionel Cosgrove from Braindead is another worthy example, though I would argue he goes from comedic loser to brave hero but he never mixes these two aspects.
So even if we acknowledge Ash as the king of the castle (and we should all hail to the king, baby) then there still remains a particular a character that I think deserves a very special mention. Someone who gets closer to taking Ash Williams hero-crown as any other character has. This is the man, this is the myth, and this is the semi-legend that never quite made it into the wider pop-consciousness, one Mr Jack Burton.
Big Trouble In Little China is possibly the most underrated film made by John Carpenter. Released in 1986, Carpenter had already made solid, fun flicks such as Dark Star (1974), Assault On Precinct 13 (1976),and The Fog (1980). In addition, Carpenter had also already made films with more depth to them, such as the satirical Escape From New York (1981) and the emotional Starman (1984). Carpenter even had two genuine genre classics under his belt in the form of Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982).
The aforementioned titles are not even a full filmography of John Carpenter’s career by the mid-eighties. Still, just the aforementioned titles alone show that by 1986, Carpenter had successfully dabbled in comedy, action, horror, suspense and Sci-Fi. Once Carpenter opted to combine most of these elements the result was his homage to chop-socky Eastern films, Big Trouble In Little China.
Take a peek into the core of Big Trouble’s heart, you will see the hero in discussion, Jack Burton. Jack is played by the rugged, all-American stalwart Kurt Russell. For reasons that will be given after a quick plot breakdown, we’ll investigate how Russell and Carpenter created a bumbling-ass kicker to almost rival Bruce Campbell’s masterful Ash.
Jack Burton is a long haul truck driver who has seen it all. So long as he has his beloved truck , Jack can get his pay, drink beers with buddies and hit on woman. In fact Burton’s life is pretty complete as it is.
Finishing a delivery in San Francisco, Jack swings by to meet an old friend, Wang Chi. After some drinks, card games, and a bet that I am sure drunken film fans must have imitated, Wang ends up owing quite a lot of money to Jack. Before he can pay his debt though, Wang needs to pick up his bride-to-be from the airport, Miao Yang. Miao Ying is arriving from China for the first time, and as a Chinese girl with green eyes she is considered a most unusual beauty.
So unusual in fact, that Miao Ying is kidnapped under Jack’s and Wang’s noses by a street gang called the Lords of Death. Trying to help his friend save Miao Ying from the Lords Of Death, Jack becomes witness to a sudden gang war between ‘good locals’ and ‘bad locals’ of Chinatown. Just as the good guys are winning, a trio of supernatural soldiers, The Three Storms, appear and massacre everyone.
As Jack is recoiling from seeing The Three Storms, he is then unexpectedly assaulted by a Chinese Ghost, Lo Pan. Jack and Wang manage to escape, but once they get their bearings they discover that Lo Pan is both a criminal kingpin and a dead sorcerer who needs a girl with green eyes for a special ritual…… But worse than all of that, Lo Pan’s goons made the mistake of taking Jack’s truck!
Now Jack is pissed, Wang wants his bride back and the head of the remaining good locals, Egg Shoo Yun, decides it is time to stop Lo Pan once and for all. Cue a lot of stuff involving demons, magick (sic), martial arts and even Kim Cattrall. Kim Cattrall may be know better to some readers as Sam from Sex & The City. She appears in this film long before she was famous for recreating OAP, soft-core porn scenes, which is for the best as this is only rated as a Certificate 15.
At this stage perhaps you are thinking how amazing this film sounds- and you would be right to think that. It is fantastic, in both the literal and figurative sense. In fact, just detailing the plot of Big Trouble In Little China helps sets the tone of the entire movie. It involves action, comedy and fantasy. In this respect it is much like those gosh darned Evil Dead films, albeit with the very different focus on fun mysticism and martial arts in the place of splatter and tension. Genres aside though, Jack Burton’s main difference to Ash is that Jack is actually a terrible hero.
Ash is easy to love because so much bad luck befalls him. Throughout the Evil Dead Trilogy, Ash narrowly survives various incidents by being an expert ass-kicker whenever it comes to the crunch during every battle. Ash beats the She-Bitch in a Medieval pit by escaping at the last second whilst she is crushed. He stops the possessed corpse of his girlfriend via a well placed swing with a spade, once again at the last second. Ash even trains a legion of men to defeat the Army of Darkness through his own natural instinct for combat (and strangely, a book on combustion engines).
In short, Ash has a rough time of it- but when life gives him lemons he squishes them right back into life’s eyes and then mocks them for squinting. Ash is tough and a jerk, but we love him because given his luck and his meanness, he has every right to be a tough-jerk..
Jack, on the other hand, is pretty much inept at everything. He is not a good ass kicker. He does not defeat any demons or soldiers by skill. All he is does is get very lucky. At one point he accidentally sets off a machine gun just as several gang members rush him. In another fight scene, Jack takes so long getting a knife out of his boot that by the time he stabs his enemy, he is then immediately trapped under its dead body. He even ends up missing the biggest battle in the film because of this!
In fact Jack’s sole moment of action glory comes when he faces off against the biggest bad guy of all, Lo Pan. The only reason that Jack even survives this moment is a combination of a magic potion and because Lo Pan underestimates Jack so very much. In fact, Lo Pan’s right hand man even forgets Jacks’ name!
Throughout Big Trouble In Little China, it is actually Wang who does all the heroics. Jack is brave enough to get involved but he only survives thanks to his best friends skills. When it comes to action, Ash is clearly a better fighter. Yet aside from battle skills, there are two other criteria for most modern action heroes- quips and sex appeal.
In regards to quips, it would be tough for most characters to defeat Ash. Any person that can replace their hand with a chainsaw and proclaim ‘Groovy’’ is a pretty amusing guy, not to mention that someone who can mouth off to a King as ‘Mr Fancy Pants’ or even take on a possessed hag with the line ‘Yo! She-Bitch, Let’s go!’ is a smart Alec of epic proportions.
Jack may not manage quite the same depths, but he’s got some golden moments of his own. These include;
–‘Honey, I never drive faster than I can see’
–‘Everybody relax- I’m here’
– And my personal favourite, ‘Okay. You people sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… call the president.’
When it comes to women, Jack doesn’t top Ash for success- but he actually does for class.
Over the three Evil Dead movies, Ash has two girlfriends (both of whom he kills!) and he sleeps with a Medieval princess. Not bad. Jack on the other hand finally wins over Kim Cattrell, then turns her down for life on the road. I’m calling their romantic comparison an even draw solely because she was practically a hussy in Sex & The City and so Jack may be the one and only man to have turned her down on screen.
In total then, Jack Burton is pretty damn awesome. Just because he is not quite the King of genre-heroes, Jack is still one heck of an esteemed Prince.
Of course as with both characters, the reasons for the characters successful natures are only partially down to their scripts. Hugely important is their casting. Ash is played by Bruce Campbell. Campbell in his prime had the looks of a matinee idol, the dialogue delivery of a Marx Brother and slapstick skills of a Stooge. No other role that he has played since ever made the most of his combined skills (though to be fair, Bubba Ho-Tep came darn close).
Ash Williams was the first role that Campbell ever played on the big screen. He refined the role of Ash over a few decades worth of of sequels and video games. He has also remained an employed actor ever since. He has even been the lead of own Television shows, but no other role has ever established Campbell’s own film-legacy as that of Ash. It was quite the début part, then.
In contrast, the role of Jack Burton was played by an already very well-established star, Kurt Russell. Having grown up doing lightweight Disney films (such as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, 1969) and progressing to a comic/romantic leading man in his own right (Used Cars, 1980) Russell had already proven himself to have a sense of fun and charisma on screen. By the 1980’s he had re-invented himself as a man’s man over two previous John Carpenter films, The Thing and Escape from New York.So by the time the role of Jack Burton rolled around, Russell was primed to combine all his skills to best play the part.
Bruce Campbell very rightly gets a lot of critical praise for his excellent turn as Ash. However Russell is often over looked for his part in Big Trouble In Little China. Like Campbell, Russell channels so much physicality, wry witticisms and slapstick timing into his part that it is impossible to imagine anybody else pulling it off so well.
Perhaps the over-looking of Russell’s skill in the role of Jack Burton is because of his additional success in other, far bigger cinema hits. Campbell never really conquered Hollywood in the same way that Kurt Russell did, which is perhaps why it is easier to admire Campbell’s full skill-set via Ash. Whatever the reason though, both actors brought their A-Game to their performances and both characters thrived due to their equally sterling work.
Well, as my old pal Jack Burton always used to say- “what the hell”. I’ve made my point that Jack was the man in his own right, and I hope that his character one day gets a wider appreciation. But even more than this, I hope that Jack and Ash will unite one day to take down a Necronomicon- powered Lo-Pan. A man can but dream…..
Next Time I’ll be looking at …. XXXXXXXXX (do do da-do-do). XXXXXXXXX (do do da-do-do). Good luck figuring that clue out!
Thanks for reading,