Big Trouble In Little China: Re-Evaluating Jack Burton

Kurt Russell as Jack Burton is one of the finest anti-heroes of 80s cinema. Or is he...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Spoilers for Big Trouble In Little China lie ahead…

Never meet your heroes. That’s what they say.

But the good thing about heroes that come from the movies is that you never have to worry about that; meeting them is not going to happen, save some sort of Jumanji hijinks. As a result, Han Solo, say, is immortalized onscreen, and all you have to worry about is Harrison Ford coming across as prickly in interviews. So, what happens if your heroes don’t change…but you do?

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During one particularly long and hard think about Big Trouble In Little China, the original trailer was just begging to be watched. The film itself has reached near-mythological status in my house: introduced by my grandfather, regularly quoted and emblazoned on my attire. I know it inside out. Or I thought I did.

Main man Jack Burton is up there on that pedestal of anti-heroes alongside Han Solo: both characters are cool, charismatic, cocky nerfherders. Burton himself is bigger than Big Trouble In Little China, surpassing the film through iconic quotes, Fu Manchu vests and the evergreen appeal of Kurt Russell.

With that being said, it shouldn’t have been a shock to see that from the original trailer, the entire film was built and sold on Russell’s protagonist. But what was a shock was that it was built on his pratfalls, his misfires and his incompetence as a hero. “Jack Burton’s coming to rescue your summer,” mutters the ’80s trailer man between Marlboros.

Alongside making him sound like a meteorologist on a mission, the trailer framed Jack Burton in what seemed a drastically different light to how he’s perceived in the film overall. More Paul Blart than Han Solo. The trailer sees him knock himself unconscious shooting holes in the roof, forgetting to knock the safety catch off his gun and punching with all the impact of a WWE ‘superstar’. He’s a klutz. A braggart. A jerk. But he wasn’t always… was he? What happened to cool, charismatic, and cocky?

A common criticism of the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks (stick with me) is that his success through clumsiness renders the suspension of disbelief inert. As in, you don’t believe that someone that stupid can survive, let alone thrive. Han Solo can’t keep on running from Stormtroopers forever. At some point he has to turn, shoot and show his skill.

It’s no different here, but it took this long – Big Trouble In Little China is nearly 32 years old – to realise that good ol’ Jack Burton is not exactly the anti-hero that memory suggests. Perhaps unlikely hero is a more apposite epithet, although nowhere near as badass.

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First of all, although he’s hardly an anti-hero of Travis Bickle proportions, there’s no denying that Jack Burton is trouble: he gambles, he drinks, he wears sunglasses indoors… all the signs are there. What shines through though, is his need to create his own mythology.

Because Jack’s been there and done that, he’s able to offer sage advice for all sorts of everyday scenarios. Perhaps you’ve run into someone to whom you owe a truckload of cash? Jack offers a simple, in need of modernizing, get-out clause. Jack’s riposte? “Yessir, the check is in the mail!”

Coming face to face with a storm that threatens to dislodge fence panels, roof slates and perhaps the actual pillars of Heaven? Jack apparently says “Gimme your best shot, pal! I can take it!”

And we’ve all been there: preparing to come to blows with Thunder, a violent, otherworldly, raging God of Storms, all while wearing a blood red shade of lipstick. What does ol’ Jack Burton always say at a time like that? “What the hell!”

Similarly, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, the times that Jack’s reflexes let him down far outweigh when they don’t. For every bottle caught during a knife gamble, there’s a volley of punches in the face and a failed half-nelson. For every thrown knife to the forehead, there’s a leg sweep and an ineffective right hook. But “it’s all in the reflexes” is a damn fine catchphrase to have to hand when it all goes swimmingly well. And that’s the one that people remember.

These are the moments that live on, regardless of how they come about; this is not about showing your workings out. How many people talk about Han Solo packing up Princess Leia’s reward and doing a runner? Exactly. But saving Luke and helping blow up the Death Star? Different story, that. The original Big Trouble In Little China trailer makes it difficult to believe that Jack would ever end up on that pedestal.

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But that’s what makes him all the more compelling. More human even. It doesn’t matter that he constantly fails, lets people down and makes himself look ridiculous in the process (“Henry Swanson’s my name, and excitement’s my game). In the end, he defeats the undead Lo-Pan, saves the world and gets the girl (and then shuns her to save face in front of his friends). All before driving the Pork Chop Express off into the distance. And those deeds are his monuments.

At the risk of sounding twee, why can’t we all be more like Jack Burton? Let’s have some misplaced confidence. Let’s shrug off whatever doesn’t work as if it never happened and let’s claim happy accidents as our idea all along. Let’s not be afraid to make a fool of ourselves and let’s build our own mythology a little.

Maybe the answer to the question “Who’s Jack Burton?” is, we all are. Too much? Okay.

So it sounds like we’d like to see more of him, right? You’d think so. The delicate balance of anti-hero and accidental hero brought to the character by Kurt Russell, as endearing as it is, would be tricky to replicate for a modern day audience. After all, the original trailer made this fan balk.

And do we really need to see him back on the big screen? Despite living on through comic book pages, including most recently John Carpenter’s Old Man Jack series, talk of a Big Trouble In Little China re-make/boot/imagining has been floating around when it probably should have been flushed.

The last word on the revitalised series is that Dwayne Johnson will be donning the ill-fitting vest alongside producer duties. It all sounds a little Baywatch to us, but it’s encouraging that Johnson is pulling for Carpenter to come on board too. It’s just a shame that we can’t pull for Kurt Russell while we’re at it. A Logan-esque send off for Jack? Now we’re talking.

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Having said that, we’re a fickle bunch and we said the same about Solo: A Star Wars Story, but now we’re counting down the parsecs until its release. On the Han Solo comparisons, maybe Jack: A ‘Big Trouble…’ Story does have a nice ring to it.