Kurt Russell's loudmouthed truck driver Jack Burton is just a tourist in John Carpenter's 1986 supernatural action film Big Trouble in Little China, which involves (for starters) exploding green flames, warring Chinatown street gangs and time traveling ancient warriors. But for any of this insane fantasy to make sense to Western ears, narrator Egg Shen (Victor Wong) falsely paint him the hero.
That's just not the case, though. Burton simply gets swept up in an ongoing battle for supremacy happening behind the façade of San Francisco's trademark tourist destination. "I'm a reasonable guy, but I just saw some unreasonable things," he says after witnessing an act of Chinese black magic that defies Western rationale. Juxtaposing perception and reality through cultural tradition and mainstream ignorance is just one of the film's many virtues.
Carpenter and Russell had worked together on two masterpieces before, the great horror remake The Thing and scathing social critique/survival yarn Escape From New York. But Big Trouble in Little China, which screens at 11:55 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, as part of the Ken Cinema's Midnight Film series, deconstructs Russell's role as a leading man, turning him into comic relief in service of an Asian-American badass named Wang (Dennis Dun).
Carpenter's trademark style is still present, including the moody synthesizer score that complements the film's crisp pacing and slaphappy action. Yet Big Trouble in Little China's irreverent and schizoid nature stands out in relation to the director's other work. Violence is both silly and gruesome; an early sequence involving a gnarly street fight gives the opening of Gangs of New York a run for its money.
Thematically, history is respected but the conventions of standard narrative storytelling are thrown to the wind.
All of this contradiction makes for a startlingly joyous revisionist Western that, as one wise man says, "can shake the pillars of heaven."
Barista: Five top baristas push it to the limit one more time while competing in a national coffee competition. Screens through Thursday, Nov. 18, at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
By the Sea: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt star in this 1970s-set drama about a married couple slowly growing apart while visiting the South of France.
Love the Coopers: Four generations of the Cooper clan get together during Christmas and hilarity ensues. Stars making appearances purely for the paycheck include John Goodman, Amanda Seyfried, Olivia Wilde, Marisa Tomei and Diane Keaton.
My All-American: A college football coach (Aaron Eckhart) leads his team to a championship season only to experience the toughest challenge of his life immediately after.
Sex, Death and Bowling: This family drama finds an 11-year-old setting out on a quest to win a local bowling tournament. Opens Friday, Nov. 13, at the Reading Gaslamp Cinemas.
Spotlight: Investigative reporters from the Boston Globe seek to uncover the truth behind the Catholic Church’s cover up of molestation cases involving local priests.
Trash: Three boys from the slums of Rio de Janeiro find a wallet in the local trash heap, changing their lives forever. Directed by Stephen Daldry of Billy Elliot fame. Screens through Thursday, Nov. 19, at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
The 33: Based on true events, this drama centers on the 33 Chilean miners struggling to survive while trapped underneath the surface of the Earth after a devastating collapse.
The Assassin: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s beautiful and dense ode to the Wuxia film follows a trained killer’s journey back home to fulfill one final mission. Winner of the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The Dinner: Two brothers must face the reality that their children are involved in a gruesome attack in this drama from Italy. Screens through Thursday, Nov. 19, at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
The Hallow: A family isolated on a remote Irish island must square off against some demonic forces of evil. Screens at 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17, and 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18.