I’m sure you’ve all seen the news by now. They’re doing a remake of Big Trouble in Little China with reportedly (as of this writing) the Rock in the lead role of Jack Burton. Now, I’m not as anti-remake as many other are, if for no other reason (as I outlined at length here) than the fact that 99% of the things the anti-remake crowd say while condemning remakes sight unseen are typically large amounts of bovine manure. Besides, I figure that the absolute worst case scenario with a remake is that it sucks while I still have the original to enjoy.
But I’m actually a little more apprehensive than usual about the news of this remake. Why? Because there’s an amazingly fundamental concept about what the Jack Burton character is at its core, one that I’ve even seen many hardcore fans screw up in spectacular fashion in various fanfics, that getting wrong here would throw every other aspect of a remake/reboot/sequel horribly off kilter. That fundamental concept is that Jack Burton is not written like a hero. Jack Burton as written is essentially sidekick material.
Put down the sticks and stones, people. I’m a fan, I really am. I’ve been a rabid fan of the film and the character for just shy of 30 years now. Sit me down in a room to talk about Big Trouble in Little China and I’ll still gleefully be talking long after most sane people have chewed their own limbs off to get away from me. I love the film and the characters in it, but the fact is that Jack Burton as written isn’t really a hero. Maybe you could try to call him something along the lines of a hapless hero, but the truth is that Jack Burton is written more like a sidekick with attitude while Wang Chi is almost written more like the hero of the piece.
Now, we all give him hero status, and, in all honesty, as a character he’s damned close. But let’s look how he’s written and how the character is used throughout the film. We’ll start by jumping past some of his intro and past his arrival into Chinatown by going straight to the airport scene.
This is the scene that really sets the adventure off after all. The thing is that what sets it off is Jack’s lack of knowledge about what’s going on and his general, well, ineptitude. He’s busy failing at flirting with a girl when he sees some common street hoods start trouble. He then promptly gets his butt handed to him, but his actions also get his best friend’s girl kidnapped even though she was not the intended target of the street hoods.
He engages in chase, following the directions of Wang Chi to the hangout of the Lords of Death. Of course, once there he has no clue who is who or what is what, relies again on Wang for information and instructions, is forced to hightail it on foot, and gets his truck stolen.
While he has moments of heroic nature about him in the next few parts of the film, he still doesn’t quite break into the true hero mold. The mover and shaker behind getting the group set up with the proper tools and talent pulled together isn’t Jack. That’s largely Wang’s doing. The “go in there and play a dork to get information” role, often the job of the goofy sidekick when not dealing with a lone hero, isn’t given to Wang or any of the others, it’s given to Jack. Jack also shows in the early going that he’s not exactly cut out to be an action hero in the fisticuffs mold. Oh, and he also manages to let Gracie get kidnapped on top of Wang’s girl.
So then the real big plan has to be made and executed, and, again, it’s Wang and not Jack who pulls in the big guns for the final siege on Lo Pan’s lair. It’s Wang and his crew that pull together a plan of action. Jack is just along for the ride, and at least one time in more ways that just figuratively.
The various fight scenes in the lair are also telling with regards to defining the nature of the Jack Burton character. It’s Wang and his crew that actually get the serious fighting done. Throughout the various encounters, Jack drops his knife, Jack struggles to get his guns working, and Jack knocks himself out and misses most of the big fight that everyone else is dealing with. One of his big threat moments after being captured is going for a ride in a wheelchair. There’s a moment of real danger in there as he dangles over the edge of a well, barely being kept from falling in because of some bricks his chair’s wheels are wedged in, but then he takes it to goofy sidekick level. He pulls himself forward and gets the balance of the chair back onto the floor and not over the well. So far so good. But then, once properly upright again, he slowly wheels himself forward a few feet before overly dramatically leaping up and sending the wheelchair falling into the well. That absolutely comes off feeling like a goofy sidekick move.
His one act that might define the hero in most stories like this is that he’s the one who actually kills the bad guy, but even then he sort of almost seems to accidently do it. Most of the serious fighting with Lo Pan has been done by the others already, his serious attempt to take Lo Pan out fails, and he ends up killing him with what is basically (from how we were introduced to it) his beer bottle trick.
By the end of the film he doesn’t even really get the girl. He’s heading out of town alone in his truck, talking overly silly talk into his trusty CB, and totally unaware that he’s about to get jumped by big ugly.
If you look at the overall basics in the storytelling of what he has to do in the film, even that doesn’t really work at making Jack the “hero” of the piece. The quest to save the girl isn’t really his. That’s Wang’s quest. In a lot of the situations in the film, it’s Jack who comes off as the character most likely to not make it through the film alive and in one piece without the presence of the others. He’s not the smartest one and he’s not the toughest one. When it’s all said and done, he comes across as the lucky one, and occasionally the clueless lucky one at that.
Jack Burton is written in many ways exactly how the bumbling buffoon sidekick is written. In the pantheon of 1980’s movie heroes, and this may be one of the reasons the movie bombed at the box office back in its day, he was the clownish opposite of almost every other movie hero role in the American movie theaters at the time. As far as effectiveness, the only movie hero who might have been more irrelevant to the ultimate outcome of his movie was Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but at least Indiana Jones came across as more competent and in control of the situation than Jack ever does.
Then there’s also that fact that he never shuts up. He’s incapable of shutting up. He’s always cracking jokes, making flip comments, talking tough, and playing it macho even when it’s apparent that he can in no way walk the walk he’s just been talking. If he was a different character in a different action film, we’d all be sitting there expecting the hero to stroll up any second and ask him how he managed to get himself into yet another fix before watching the hero take care of business. In classic TV terms, if Jack was one of the lead characters in The Cisco Kid, he probably would not be the Cisco Kid.
Yet, despite all of that, we embrace him as the hero of the film. Despite his being an amiable buffoon who probably wouldn’t have managed to get through the film without the much more competent and knowledgeable secondary characters, millions of guys have wanted to be him. He’s this goofy, roguish, lovable, good guy character that you want to embrace as the hero. Strangely, all of this somehow works along with the way Kurt Russell played the character and John Carpenter directed him to get the character absolutely over as the unquestionable hero of the film. It’s all of this combined with how Kurt Russell played the character and John Carpenter directed him that makes him the cult classic hero that he is as well as making the movie such an enjoyable film to this very day.
It’s all of this that makes a remake such a difficult trick to pull off. It’s all of this that makes it so amazingly easy to screw up the character in a huge way and thus screw up the additional film adventures of that character. I have less faith in Hollywood writers than I do in fans when it comes to being faithful to a source, and, frankly, I’ve seen a lot fan written stories chronicling the continuing adventures of Jack Burton that have totally screwed the pooch.
I’ve seen really well written Jack Burton fanfic over the years. Skilled writing, solid storytelling, good balance in the ratio of humor to adventure, very well fleshed out secondary charters, and very Jack-like dialogue. Despite all of that though, the story fails on every level. The reason for that failure is how they choose to write Jack. Rather than being the character that he is, many fans, particularly male fans, tend to write the character as the hero they wish they could be.
They make Jack cool, capable, in control, the leader of whatever crew he needs to pull together, and a guy who can get things done better than everyone else in the story. But that’s absolutely not Jack, and getting him wrong throws the entire story out of whack since Jack is absolutely the heart and soul of what makes the story work the way it does. If diehard, loyal, rabid Big Trouble in Little China fans can mess up that single defining trait of the character so badly, what are the odds of seeing a Hollywood writer who may not be as invested in the first film as the fans getting it right?
Jack is a lovable goof. He’s a reluctant wannabe action hero with more macho swagger than actual can-do skill who somehow manages to actually get through his adventure. He shares more traits in common with the traditional sidekick than he does the traditional hero. Yet, somehow, despite all of that, he still manages to come off as the hero by the end of the story. It’s that trait, that hard as hell to pull off trait, which makes the character what it is and makes the story we all know and love work the way it does.
And, honestly, while I really like the guy, casting the Rock as the lead absolutely makes me feel like they may not be looking to get the character right as much as they are looking to make a franchise for the Rock to be the Rock in. He’s talented, he’s funny, he can do action, but he does not come off as being able to do that type of character right.
Compounding their facing this uphill battle is the problem of the other uphill battle they face. Again, I don’t share the automatic hate of remakes that many have, but this is one of those times that I at least question the wisdom of doing a remake vs. doing a sequel or a tweaked reboot. This is a very quirky, very unique film. If I was in charge, I’d be pushing for a continuing adventures type deal with the story set somewhere else with none of the other characters returning. A new story might be better suited to a new actor and writer dealing with the character.
But, either way, Hollywood is going to finally roll the dice on this after decades of rumors and speculation about a big screen or even small screen sequel or remake coming down the pike. I actually wish them luck with it because a fun, geeky adventure franchise is something I would really love seeing. But, even if they totally mess it up, we’ll always have the original.
Jerry Chandler is in full preparation panic mode. Seriously, what’s wrong with you people? How can you be so calm? There are only84 days left to get ready for Dragon Con! That’s not enough time! Panic! Freak out! Insanity! Argh!