"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sin City

Most adaptations of independent comic books are far more successful (and by successful I mean faithful to their source material) than long-running mainstream ones from the two largest comic book companies, Marvel and DC. One only has to look at recent examples, such as Ghost World (2001), American Splendor (2003) and Hellboy (2004) against the failures of Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2004) and Constantine (2005). So, why are the first three films more satisfying triumphs and the last three empty exercises in style? The answer is simple. In the case of the first three movies, the filmmakers wisely allowed the comic book creators direct involvement in the filmmaking process, whether it was working on the screenplay (as with Ghost World and Hellboy) or actually appearing in the movie (American Splendor).

In the past, the comic book creator was, at best, a peripheral presence in the filmmaking process, or not even included at all. With bigger, longer running series, like Spider-Man or Superman, it is much harder to include the creator because there is not just one but many who have worked on the comic book over the years. Where does the filmmaker even start in these cases? To be fair, there have been the rare, recent exceptions where mainstream comics have been successfully translated to the big screen — the first two Spider-Man and X-Men films come immediately to mind. However, these are few and far between.

It only makes sense that if one is going to adapt a comic book into a film that it be faithful in look and tone to its source material. Otherwise, why adapt it in the first place? Of course, there is always the danger of being too faithful to the look of the comic and not being faithful to its content (characterization, story, dialogue, etc.) like Warren Beatty’s take on Dick Tracy (1990) — all style and no substance. It goes without saying that the next logical step would be to include its creator, if possible, in the process so as to achieve the authenticity and integrity of the source material. Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has taken this notion to the next level with his latest film, Sin City (2005), by having its creator, Frank Miller, co-direct the movie with him. In fact, Rodriguez is so respectful of Miller’s work that he not only has the artist’s name listed first in the directorial credit but also displays his name prominently above the film’s title.
Sin City began as a series of graphic novels created by Miller. They are loving homages to the gritty pulp novels Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane and classic film noirs from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Miller’s world — the dangerous, crime-infested Basin City — is populated by tough, down-on-their-luck losers who risk it all to save impossibly voluptuous women from corrupt cops and venal men in positions of power through extremely violently means in the hopes of ultimately redeeming themselves. The movie ambitiously consists of three Sin City stories: That Yellow Bastard, The Hard Goodbye, and The Big Fat Kill with the short story, “The Customer is Always Right” acting as a prologue.

In the first story, Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a burnt-out cop with a bum-ticker and on the eve of retirement, is betrayed by his partner (Michael Madsen) after maiming a vicious serial killer (Nick Stahl) of young girls who also happens to be the son of the very power Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). The next tale features a monstrous lug named Marv (Mickey Rourke) who wakes up in bed with a dead prostitute named Goldie (Jaime King) and decides to get revenge on those responsible for killing the only thing that mattered in his miserable life. The final segment focuses on Dwight’s (Clive Owen) attempt to keep the peace in Old City when the prostitutes who run the area unknowingly kill a high profile (and also a sleaze bag) cop named Jack Rafferty (Benicio del Toro) and in the process risk destroying the precarious truce between the cops and the hookers that currently exists.
The three main protagonists are all well cast. Bruce Willis is just the right age to play Hartigan. With the age lines and the graying stubble on his face, he looks the part of a grizzled, world-weary cop with nothing left to lose. Willis has played this role often but never to such an extreme as in this film. Quite simply, Mickey Rourke was born to play Marv. With his own now legendary real life troubles and self-destructive behavior well documented, the veteran actor slips effortlessly into his role as the not-too-bright but with a big heart hero. British thespian Clive Owen is a pleasant surprise as Dwight and is more than capable of convincingly delivering the comic’s tough guy dialogue. As he proved with the underrated I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003), Owen is able to project an intense, fearsome presence.
The larger-than-life villains are also perfectly cast. Nick Stahl exudes deranged sleaze as Roark, Jr. and cranks it up an even scarier notch or two once he undergoes his “transformation” as the Yellow Bastard of his story. Perhaps one of the biggest revelations is the casting of Elijah Wood as the mute cannibal Kevin. Nothing he has done previously will prepare you for the absolutely unsettling creepiness of his character. Finally, Benicio del Toro delivers just the right amount reptilian charm as Jackie-Boy. Not even death stops him from tormenting Dwight and it is obvious that Del Toro is having a blast with this grotesque character.

Miller’s pulp-noir dialogue may seem archaic and silly but it is actually simultaneously paying homage and poking fun at the terse, purple prose of classic noirs and crime novels of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Rourke, Willis and Owen fair the best with this stylized dialogue as they manage to sell it with absolute conviction. It helps that both Rourke and Willis have voices perfectly suited for this kind of material: weathered and worn like they have smoked millions of cigarettes and downed gallons of alcohol over the years.
Of the women in the cast, Jessica Alba is the only real miscast actress. Not only does she not look like her character, Nancy Callahan (who was much more curvy, full-bodied and naked most of the time in the comic) but she does not go all the way with the role and her line readings feel forced and unnatural. Fortunately, Rosario Dawson more than makes up for Alba as Gail, an S&M-clad, heavily-armed prostitute who helps Dwight dispose of Rafferty’s body. She looks the part and inhabits her role with the kind of conviction that Alba lacks.

Finally, somebody has realized that the panels of a comic book are perfect storyboards for a movie adaptation. With Miller’s guidance, Robert Rodriguez has uncannily recreated, in some cases, panel-for-panel, Sin City onto film. He has not only preserved the stylized black and white world with the occasional splash of color from Miller’s comic, but also the gritty, dime-novel love stories that beat at its heart. Fans of the comic will be happy to know that virtually all of the film’s dialogue (including the hard-boiled voiceovers) has been lifted verbatim from the stories and the sometimes gruesome ultraviolence has survived the MPAA intact.
If you think about it, Rodriguez’s career has led him up to this point. With the stylized, over-the-top action of Desperado (1995), the pulp-horror pastiche of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and the mock-epic Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), he has been making comic book-esque movies throughout his career. It was only a matter of time before he adapted an existing one. Cutting his teeth on these action movies has allowed him to perfectly capture the kinetic action of Miller’s comic. Seeing hapless thugs fly through the air at the hands of El Mariachi’s deadly weapons in Desperado foreshadows the cops being propelled through the air when Marv makes his escape in Sin City.

What Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) did for the pulp serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Sin City does for film noir. There is no question that Sin City resides at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sky Captain. While both feature retro-obsessed CGI-generated worlds, the former looks grungy and lived-in and the latter is pristine and perfect-looking. Sin City is absolutely drenched in the genre’s iconography: hired killers, femme fatales that populate dirty, dangerous city streets on rainy nights. It is the pulp-noir offspring of James Ellroy and Sam Fuller with a splash EC Comics gore. Ultimately, Sin City is a silly and cool ride and one has to admire a studio for having the balls to release a major motion picture done predominantly in black and white with the kind of eccentric characters, crazed violence and specifically-stylized world that screams instant-cult film.

Here is a nice look at the differences between the Theatrical and Special Edition versions. Here are the differences between the books and the film. Finally, here is Peter Sanderson's fascinating, in-depth analysis of the film.

Monday, July 21, 2008


The harsh reality of stand-up comedy is that for every Jerry Seinfeld that makes it, there are hundreds of comedians who don't. There are comedians who work dead end jobs during the day and spend the rest of their time working comedy clubs in the hopes of getting that "big break" on a late night talk show or a role in a film or a television sitcom. Some of them have what it takes but most do not. David Seltzer's film, Punchline (1988), is dedicated to and about these men and women who try to make us laugh. It also explores the dedication, the discipline, and the sacrifices that must be made in order to make it.

Steven Gold (Tom Hanks) is a struggling medical student who moonlights as a stand-up comedian. It quickly becomes evident that he is lousy at the former and excels at the latter. And yet, when he is given a chance at the big time, he cracks under the pressure. Lilah (Sally Field) is a dedicated housewife that also yearns to be a comic. She has the raw talent but not the command of craft that Steven possesses. At first, he doesn't give Lilah the time of day but slowly they bond and he teaches her the fundamentals of stand-up comedy. "All you need is the right gags," Steven tells her, and he's right. Once Lilah has some decent material she discovers her natural gift of making people laugh. An uneasy friendship develops between the two and the personal conflicts they must resolve: Steven's desire to make it big vs. his inability to do so and Lilah's love of comedy vs. her love for her family.

David Seltzer wrote the first draft for Punchline in 1979 after becoming fascinated by comedy clubs while looking for someone to play a psychiatrist on a T.V. pilot that he was writing about stand-up comics. He had a development deal with the movie division of ABC. Originally, the tone of the film was more good-natured a la Fame (1980) with more characters and less of an emphasis on Steven Gold. Bob Bookman, an executive, sponsored the script but left for Columbia Pictures. He bought the screenplay because Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin) was interested in directing it. When Zieff lost interest (he ended up doing Unfaithfully Yours in 1984), the script was buried for years.

Field didn't mind sharing the majority of the screen time with Tom Hanks and taking on the role of producer because, as she said in an interview at the time, "as a producer I am not developing films in which I can do fancy footwork. I don't have to have the tour de force part." She asked her friend Lily Tomlin for advice and she told her to go on stage. Field went to a comedy club in Manhattan Beach but the 45-minute routine turned into a question and answer session with the veteran actress. She decided to consult with New York comic Susie Essman and sitcom writer Dottie Archibald who coached Field. The writer also served as comedy consultant for the film, recruiting fifteen comics to populate the comedy club Steven and Lilah frequent. Field's research often mirrored her character's as she remembered working “for about six months to find where Lilah's comedy was, which is what my character was going through. So it was actually happening to both of us."

Field met Hanks over lunch and was able to convince her that he was right for the role. She remembered, “He said to me quietly, I’m ready to do this kind of work. And I knew he was right.” Two months before the Punchline went into production, Hanks wrote a five-minute stand-up act and performed it at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. As Hanks recalled, "It was pure flop sweat time, an embarrassment. That material lasted 1 minute 40 seconds, and it had no theme." Hanks tried again and again, sometimes hitting three clubs a night. It took a month before the actor "didn't sweat like a pig" on stage. By that point he had enlisted an old friend and comedy writer Randy Fechter and stand-up comic Barry Sobel to help him write his routine. Hanks ended up performing more than thirty times in clubs in Los Angeles and New York City.

The first half of Punchline is a fascinating look at the inner workings of stand-up comedy and what it takes to make it. In this respect, Seltzer's film is an unflinching portrayal of this profession. As Steven tells Lilah, "It takes every night, six clubs a night, all night. It takes working stag parties and elk club parties where you're opening for a fucking accordion player." It is this kind of dedication that is clearly needed in order to be successful. Stand-up comic Sobel felt that the atmosphere of the film's comedy club was very authentic. "There's a lot of desperation in the movie on the part of a lot of the comedians, which I feel is on the nose of what it is to be a stand-up." For Hanks, the challenge in doing the stand-up scenes was to have “the routines as funny to the audiences in the theater as they are to audiences in the clubs in the movie. You can’t mark the script, ‘The audience erupts in uproarious laughter.’”

The film's weakness lies in Lilah's family life. Except for a wonderfully choreographed sequence where Lilah has to rush to get dinner ready for her husband (John Goodman) and his guests before they get home, the moments that feature Lilah with her family are where Punchline loses its energy and becomes a maudlin drama. This aspect of the film just isn't as fascinating as the parts dealing with the art of stand-up comedy.

Punchline's best moments are when Steven's manic presence dominates the screen. Tom Hanks' characterization deftly shows how tragedy and comedy are entwined. In one scene, his character has a gig at a hospital where he entertains a group of patients and doctors. Hanks is genuinely funny as he works the crowd, making fun of people's injuries so that they forget their own pain for a moment. The beauty of this scene is watching how Hanks interacts with his audience and how convincing he is as a stand-up comic. For the actor, the allure of doing stand-up comedy was "walking into a room of 400 people and taking them wherever you want for 20 minutes. Steven is god of his universe as long as he's got a microphone in his hand."

Hanks is also able to show us the darker side of his character in a brutal scene where he has a shot at being discovered and ruins it. Steven does his act at a club with a talent scout watching only to realize that his father, whom he fears and loathes, is in the audience. The look on Steven's face before he does his act says it all — he knows he's going to blow it but goes on anyway. The scene is so painful to watch because it is in such a sharp contrast to the hospital scene. To a deafening silence, Steven starts talking about his relationship with his father before breaking down and crying in front of the audience. It is an emotionally powerful scene that is tough to watch and one that the film is never able to surpass.

And this is due in large part to Hanks who goes all out with his performance by showing such a wide range of emotions that swing from euphoria to bitter resentment. It's an unusual role for Hanks who usually plays nice guys. As the actor recalled in an interview, "He's not a lovable goofball. His difficulties don't make him a nicer character or a more sympathetic character but they do make him a darker character." Under Steven's very funny facade lurks a self-destructive, jealous person who will do anything to succeed. Is this what it takes to make it as a comedian? The film never really answers this question. Instead, it is left up to the audience to decide one way or the other.

Chairman of Columbia David Puttnam wanted to release Punchline during the Christmas of 1987 but the film wasn't ready – Seltzer wanted to tweak and fine-tune it. As one of the producers on the film, Field found working behind the scenes very demanding, disagreeing with Seltzer about the content of Lilah’s act and how much of it should be in the final cut. The filmmaker said, “Sally had a high degree of opinion and certainty about things. She ain’t the flying nun.” Puttnam eventually left and Dawn Steel moved in and decided to release the film after Big (1988) became a huge hit.

Punchline grossed a respectful $21 million in the United States. Roger Ebert wrote, “The problem may be that the movie isn't nearly tough enough. It needs to be more hard-boiled, more merciless in its dissection of egos, more perceptive about the cutthroat nature of show business.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson criticized Tom Hanks’ performance: “For the character to work, we have to think that he's in danger; that when he says he's going under we feel it and are frightened for him. But Hanks' big breakdown scenes don't have the sting they should, basically because he's too charming, even when he's falling apart.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “There is a credibility gap in both the screenplay and the casting. The driven, ambitious Steven might well fall for Sally Field, the Oscar winner, but he would probably flee from the sight of Lilah, the pushy amateur who is so witless she pays $500 for ancient material.”

The best comedy is about yourself, your life, what you know, and finding what is funny in that. Punchline taps into this truism by showing that comedians not only comment on their own lives but what they see around them as well. This film is at its best when it shows us the inner workings of the stand-up comedy profession and how tough it really is. There is a ring of honesty to these scenes that the rather sappy happy ending cannot diminish.


Easton, Nina. “Just a Couple of Stand-Ups: Sally Field and Tom Hanks Have a Lot Riding on Roles as Comics in Punchline.” Los Angeles Times. September 29, 1988.

Haller, Scot. “A Place in Her Heart.” People. October 17, 1988.

Harmetz, Aljean. "Tom Hanks: From Leading Man to Movie Star." The New York Times. July 6, 1988

Harmetz, Aljean. "Punchline Comes up with the Last Laugh." The New York Times. September 25, 1988.

Kaliss, Jeff. "Fields finds being a comic is no laughing matter." Christian Science Monitor. October 13, 1988.

Shepard, Richard F. “Have You Heard the One About Punchline?” Los Angeles Times. April 26, 1987.

Thomas, Bob. "Star Watch: Sally Field, a Stand-Up Comic?" Associated Press. October 4, 1988.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Seltzer's Next Project." The New York Times. September 30, 1988.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Vanishing Point

Vanishing Point (1971) is one of the great existential counter-culture films of the 1970s. Like the similar-minded films, most notably, Easy Rider (1969) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), this car chase movie features an anti-hero protagonist who equates the open road with freedom and staying in one place for too long with death. For years, it has quietly amassed a devoted cult following and several high profile admirers, chief among them filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and musicians like Primal Scream and Audioslave.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a hot shot driver burning the candle at both ends. He’s a thrill-seeking junky fueled by amphetamines and driving fast. His latest assignment is driving a white 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. His fast driving soon catches the attention of the police which forces him to use his vast arsenal of driving techniques to evade them. Super Soul (Cleavon Little) is a blind African-American disc jockey who listens in on the pursuit of Kowalski and mythologizes the man while also warning him of trouble further down the road on his radio show.

The opening scene of the film features a collection of shots of old men in a small, seemingly deserted town out in the middle of nowhere. They all have grizzled looks of people who have lived hard lives with faces full of character. Gradually, we see more activity in the town as bulldozers rumble along, setting up for the confrontation with Kowalski. A CBS news truck shows up and then a highway patrol helicopter before Kowalski himself is revealed, chased by three patrol cars. This is the present and the rest of the film shows how he got to this point.

At first glance, the premise of Vanishing Point seems pretty slim. Admittedly, it is total B-movie material, however, Guillermo Cain’s (pseudonym for avant-garde Cuban novelist G. Cabrera Infante) screenplay sneaks in a subversive political subtext. Through a series of flashbacks it is revealed that Kowalski is a Vietnam War veteran who has had trouble adjusting to normal life back home. He’s seen police corruption first hand and mistrusts any kind of authority. Cain uses Super Soul as the mouthpiece for the film’s political stance. He cheers Kowalski on with an inspired rap: “The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver. The last American hero. The demigod. The super driver of the golden west. Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone rider. The police numbers are getting’ closer! Closer to our soul hero in his soulmobile!”
Barry Newman is Kowalski. Not much is revealed about his character except that his whole existence seems to revolve around driving cars from one destination to another. He portrays the man as a burn-out who’s been through a series of dangerous, risky jobs that fuel his need for speed. Through a series of flashbacks we find out he used to race dirt bikes and stock cars. He was also a cop who rescued a young girl from being raped by his partner. Newman has tired, seen-it-all-before eyes that say more than any words could. Kowalski is more than just a burn out; he is also a folk hero of sorts who is helped by the everyday people he meets along the way. There is something sympathetic about Newman’s performance; there is still a glimmer of humanity that years of disappointment have failed to eradicate. This is reinforced by a flashback where we see that Kowalski was in love once and even led a happy life but his girlfriend drowns in a surfing accident. This illustrates why he is so jaded and helps explain his reckless attitude.

Cleavon Little is good as Super Soul. It was his feature film debut and he makes the most of his screen time with an inspired performance. He delivers his dialogue in a way that feels like it was entirely improvised. He transforms Super Soul into some kind of hep, jive talking preacher of the counter-culture who rocks the microphone with his inspired raps. He acts as a Greek chorus of sorts, encouraging Kowalski and warning him of traps that the law has set up for him. The first appearance of his character says so much of social climate of the times. As he walks his seeing eye dog across town its denizens clearly look upon him with the same kind of disdain as in the scene in Easy Rider where Billy, George and Wyatt enter a diner and are scrutinized by the prejudiced townsfolk. However, Super Soul also pays for helping out Kowalski as a group white rednecks trash his radio station and beat him up. This racially motivated attack is bloody and brief and speaks volumes about race relations at the time.
Director Richard C. Sarafian and cinematographer John A. Alonzo create a film of pure, visual storytelling. The first ten minutes alone feature almost no dialogue. They know that the car is the real star of Vanishing Point and showcase it in dynamically shot sequences that perfectly convey speed and motion through driver point-of-view shots and kinetic edits. For example, one scene starts with a close-up of Kowalski’s license plate and then the camera pulls back suddenly to reveal his car speeding along the road. To convey the appearance of speed, the filmmakers undercranked the cameras. For example, in the scenes with the Challenger and the Jaguar, the camera was cranked at half speed. The cars were traveling at approximately 50 miles per hour but at regular camera speed they appeared to be much faster. There are liberal uses of zoom shots and the camera is often close to Kowalski’s car as if it is us who are chasing him. There are also fantastic long shots of the car speeding across the land that let us appreciate the vast, open spaces of Nevada, Colorado and California.

Stunt coordinator Carey Loftin performed many of the film’s breaktaking driving. He got his start in the business as a stunt double in the 1940s and 1950s, working on many B movies. He graduated to stunt driver on films like The Young Lions and Thunder Road (both in 1958). Just prior to Vanishing Point, he choreographed the legendary car chase in Bullitt (1968) and would go on to orchestrate equally famous vehicular mayhem in The French Connection (1971) and The Getaway (1972) before winning an Academy Award for his work on Against All Odds (1984). Barry Newman did a few of the minor stunts while Loftin set-up and performed the major ones in Vanishing Point. The actor learned from Loftin and was encouraged by the stunt coordinator to do some of his own stunts. For example, in the scene before the crash at the end of the film, Newman drove, performed a 180 degree turn on the road and went back, himself without Sarafian’s knowledge.
Loftin requested the use of the 1970 Dodge Challenge because of the “quality of the torsion bar suspension and for its horsepower” and felt that it was “a real sturdy, good running car.” Five alpine white Challengers were loaned to the production by Chrysler for promotional consideration and were returned upon completion of filming. No special equipment was added or modifications made to the cars except for heavier-duty shocks for the car that jumped over No Name Creek. Loftin remembers that parts were taken out of one car to make another because they “really ruined a couple of those cars, what with jumping ramps from highway to highway and over creeks.” Newman remembers that they 440 engines in the cars were so powerful that “it was almost as if there was too much power for the body. You’d put it in first and it would almost rear back!” For the climactic crash at the end of the film, Loftin used a derelict 1967 Camero stripped of its engine and transmission. A tow-rig set-up was used with a quarter mile of cable and with the motor and transmission out. Loftin expected the car to go end over end but instead it stuck into the bulldozers which looks better.

After filming, Vanishing Point was cut from 107 to 99 minutes, completely removing a scene where Kowalski picks up a hitchhiker played by Charlotte Rampling that Newman felt gave the film “an allegorical lift.” It was cut because the studio was afraid that the audience wouldn’t understand. Newman recalls that the studio had no faith in the film and released it in neighborhood theaters as a multiple release only for it to disappear in less than two weeks. The film was not well-received by American critics at the time. Charles Champlin, in his review for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “Vanishing Point might have had a point, but it . . . ah . . . got lost. What’s left is sophisticated craft and fashionably hokey cynicism.” It didn’t get much better in the Reporter where Larry Cohen wrote, “Calculated, tedious and in desperate need of tightening, the picture, produced by Norman Spencer, is uninvolving and devoid of a cohesiveness that might have made it work.” Finally, Variety add the final critical nail in the coffin: “While car addicts may be able to maintain interest in the ultra-fast manipulation of the car, many viewers will just get car sick . . . or sick of the car, which isn’t the same thing.”

However, the film was a critical and commercial success in England and Europe which prompted it to be re-released in the United States on a double bill with The French Connection. A cult following began to develop thanks to a broadcast on network television in 1976. Vanishing Point has endured over the years. British rock band Primal Scream named their 1997 album after the movie and even recorded a song entitled “Kowalski” that features samples from Super Soul’s raps. Audioslave took their love of the film even further and brilliantly recreated and condensed the movie into a music video for their song, “Show Me How To Live.” The video incorporates actual footage from the movie and replaces Kowalski with the band. Vanishing Point would also go on to inspire other films and filmmakers. The two persistent highway patrolmen who pursue Kowalski only to crash their vehicle in the process anticipate two similar lawmen in the opening chase sequence of Mad Max (1980). Recently, Quentin Tarantino’s ode to grindhouse films, Death Proof (2007), features a chase involving Dodge Challenger that resembles the one in Vanishing Point with the three main protagonists referencing it by name several times. The film was even remade for Fox television in 1997 with Viggo Mortensen as Kowalski and Jason Priestly as Super Soul (?!). The characters were contemporized but the performances and, more importantly, the driving sequences and vastly inferior to the original. Rumor has it that Richard Kelly (of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales fame) is writing a remake.


Siegel, Mike. "The Freedom of Speed." Cinema Retro. Autumn 2008.

Sarafian, Richard C. “Vanishing Point Commentary DVD commentary.” Vanishing Point DVD. February 3, 2004.

Zazarine, Paul . "Kowalski's Last Ride." Muscle Car Review. March 1986.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Big Trouble in Little China

"What I'd like to do today is get your version of what happened," says a mild-mannered, middle-aged attorney (Jerry Hardin). "Oh? You mean the truth," replies a rather small, aging Chinese man who identifies himself as bus driver, Egg Shen (Victor Wong). The attorney remains skeptical as his potential client calmly describes his belief in Chinese black magic, and other supernatural phenomenon. As if to prove his point, the man holds up his hands so that they are parallel to one another. Suddenly, small bolts of blue electricity begin to flow from each palm, much to the attorney's amazement and Shen's bemusement. "That was nothing," Shen states. "But that's how it always begins. Very small." And with this intriguing, tell-me-a-scary-story teaser, John Carpenter's film, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), takes us on a ride into the heart of ancient Chinese lore and mythology.

Carpenter, always the maverick director with a knack for exploring offbeat subject matter (see They Live and In the Mouth of Madness), created a film that simultaneously parodies and pays homage to the kung-fu genre. This often-maligned genre is given a new level of respectability that is rarely seen in Hollywood. Gone are the ethnic slurs, the insulting stereotypes and that annoying quasi-Chinese music that always seems to accompany representations of Asians in past mainstream features. Big Trouble takes great care in presenting funny and intelligent characters without caring whether they are Chinese or not. What is of paramount importance to Carpenter is telling a good story. He created an entertaining piece of fantasy that cleverly manipulated the conventions of the action film with often-comical results.

From the engaging prologue, Big Trouble takes us back to the beginning of our story with the first appearance of truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), a good-natured, fast-talking legend in his own mind. When he and his buddy, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), go to the airport to pick up the latter's future bride arriving from China, a mix-up occurs. Wang’s bride-to-be (Suzee Pai) is kidnapped by The Lords of Death, a local gang of Chinese punks, and the duo quickly find themselves immersed in the middle of an ancient battle of good vs. evil with immortality hanging in the balance. This struggle takes place deep in the heart of the Little China neighborhood of San Francisco with Jack and Wang taking on David Lo Pan (James Hong), "The Godfather of Little China." Even Egg Shen appears to help our heroes and provide them with the means to stop the evil that threatens not only Little China, but, of course, the whole world.

Big Trouble also saw Carpenter re-team with his old friend, actor Kurt Russell who had appeared in several of the director's films, most notably Escape From New York (1981) and The Thing (1982). After watching Big Trouble it’s impossible to see anybody else as Jack Burton. Russell perfectly nails the macho swagger of his character: he’s a blowhard who’s all talk, inept when it comes to any kind of action and yet is still a likable guy. He is an amusing habit of sometimes referring to himself in the third person – there’s Jack’s world…then there’s reality. The two do cross paths on occasion but so very rarely. It is the right mix of bravado and buffoonery, a parody of the John Wayne action hero much in the same way Russell made Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken a twisted homage to Clint Eastwood. Russell said, at the time, that he "never played a hero who has so many faults. Jack is and isn't the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He's a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up. He thinks he knows how to handle situations and then gets into situations he can't handle but some how blunders his way through anyhow." Jack is also the audience surrogate – our guide into this stranger and exotic world. Russell showcases untapped comedic potential that ranges from physical pratfalls to excellent comic timing in the delivery of his dialogue. One only has to look at his scene with Wang and the elderly Lo Pan to see Russell’s wonderful comic timing. No one before or since Big Trouble has been able to tap into Russell's comedic potential as well as Carpenter does in this film.

Dennis Dun’s character starts off as the sidekick of Big Trouble and ends up accomplishing most of the film's heroic tasks while the initial hero, Jack Burton, becomes the comic relief. Dun delivers a very strong performance, holding his own against a veteran actor like Russell. The chemistry between the two characters is one of the many endearing qualities of Big Trouble as evident from their numerous scenes together, most notably the one where Wang bets Jack that he can split a beer bottle in half (“Is this going to get ugly, now?”) and the scene where the two men attempt to break into Lo Pan’s building to rescue Wang’s fiancée.

Prior to Big Trouble, Dun's only other film role was a small part in Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon (1985) but he was a veteran of more than twenty plays. Carpenter liked the actor in Cimino's movie and met with him twice before casting him in Big Trouble. Even though shooting began only a few days after Dun was cast, the action sequences weren't hard for the actor who had "dabbled" in martial arts training as a kid and done Chinese opera as an adult. He enjoyed the freedom he had on the set. "John gave me a great deal of leeway to develop my character and pretty much let me do what I wanted. He just encouraged me to be as strong as I could. He gave me a lot of freedom." Dun remembers that he and Russell shared the same approach to acting. "We never really talked about the scenes. We would come in that day to shoot a scene, and we would just do it. A large part of it was working off each other, just looking in each other's eyes and taking each other's energy and running with it."

Right from the get-go, Carpenter establishes their long-standing friendship in the way they relate to each other – the shorthand between them that is immediately believable, like how Wang good-naturedly tries to get out of paying off a debt he owes to Jack. They argue in a way that you imagine they’ve done many times before but when Wang needs a favor Jack is there for him.

Kim Cattrall plays Gracie as a pushy, talkative lawyer who acts as the perfect foil for deflating Burton's macho ego at every opportunity, acting as his love interest and constant source of aggravation. Big Trouble’s script cleverly avoids the trap of reducing her role to a screaming prop by having Gracie take an aggressive part in the action. There’s a great give and take between her and Russell. Their characters make for an entertaining screwball comedy couple: he’s always on the make while she constantly fends off his obvious advances. This was Carpenter's intention. He saw the characters in Big Trouble like the ones in classic Hollywood screwball comedies. Listen to how Jack and Gracie talk to each other – it’s a very rapid-fire delivery of dialogue reminiscent of Howard Hawks' comedies. There’s the memorable first meeting between them at the airport where he tries to hit on her and she rebuffs him by saying, “You should try standing downwind from where I am. It’s Miller Time,” to which he replies, “You know what I say when it’s Miller Time?” before being interrupted by The Lords of Death.

The studio pressured Carpenter to cast a rock star in the role of Gracie Law, Jack Burton's love interest and constant source of aggravation. For Carpenter there was no question, he wanted Kim Cattrall. The studio wasn't crazy about the idea because at the time Cattrall was primarily known for raunchy comedies like Porky's (1981) and Police Academy (1984). "I told them we needed an actress, and I enjoyed the way Kim wanted to play the character. She blended in well with the film's style." Cattrall plays Gracie as a pushy, talkative lawyer who acts as the perfect foil for deflating Burton's macho ego at every opportunity. "Actually," Cattrall said in an interview, "I'm a very serious character in this movie. I'm not screaming for help the whole time. I think humor comes out of the situations and my relationship with Jack Burton. I'm the brains and he's the brawn." Carpenter saw the characters in Big Trouble like the ones "in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. These are very 1930s, Howard Hawks people."

I was struck at how good Victor Wong is as Egg Shen, the wizard that helps Jack and Wang defeat Lo Pan. He introduces the film with a fantastic little bit of magical flourish and then disappears for a spell until our heroes are ready to take on Lo Pan. I like how his tourist bus driver cover is something he does to pass the time. Later on we find out that he's quite the legend in Chinatown and apparently quite wealthy, owning a rather large city block. It is also how Carpenter treats the character – with respect and dignity. He gets his moments of humor, imparts crucial expositional dialogue about Chinese magic and mysticism and even goes toe-to-toe with Lo Pan.

However, my favorite Egg Shen moment is at the end of the film, after Lo Pan has been vanquished and our heroes celebrate at Wang's restaurant. I like how Egg is off in the corner having a drink by himself, quietly smiles and gives a little chuckle. It's subtle and something you'd never see in a studio blockbuster these days but it is a little touch, a moment that provides a wonderful bit of insight into his character.

While much of W.D. Richter’s quotable dialogue is well-written, it is also how the actors say these lines that makes them so memorable, like the way Russell has Jack give his allies a pep talk: “Okay, you people sit tight, hold the fort, keep the home fires burning and if we’re not back by dawn, call the President.” It is the beat that he takes between “dawn” and “call,” and the tone of bravado in his delivery that makes this dialogue so amusing.

To this end, Carpenter is not given enough credit for being one of the best directors at conveying exposition dialogue in film. So often it is awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative and/or badly written, stopping the narrative momentum cold as it explains instead of shows. Carpenter inherently understands this and makes sure that the dialogue is not only interesting, providing us with tantalizing details that flesh out this cinematic world, but also makes sure his actors do a good job delivering it.

For example, there’s an excellent scene where Jack and Wang have been captured breaking into Lo Pan’s lair and Wang explains what he is and his place in Chinese history. It is important moment as it gives us an idea of what our heroes are up against and puts the villain in a historical context that establishes the stakes for him. Carpenter even slyly alleviates the solemnity of the moment when Jack says to Wang, “No horseshit, Wang?” His friend replies, “Hey, I don’t blame you. I’m Chinese and I don’t even want to believe it. But it’s for real: sorcery, Chinese black magic.” Dun really nails this scene and that last line sets an ominous tone that foreshadows the daunting task our heroes have to undertake. This scene also immerses us in authentic Chinese myths and legends. Big Trouble could have easily made light of Chinese culture, but instead mixes respect with a good dose of fun.

Big Trouble also places Asian actors in several prominent roles, including Victor Wong and Dennis Dun who is the real hero of the story, as opposed to Kurt Russell's character who is a constant source of comedy. Big Trouble crushes the rather derogatory Charlie Chan stereotype by presenting interesting characters that just happen to be Chinese. For example, when a group of Chang-Sings show up to help Jack, Egg and Wang defeat Lo Pan, Jack asks, “Any of them savvy English?” to which one of them replies in perfect English, “Hey man, who is this guy?” This moment immediately and hilariously deflates an old Chinese stereotype in Hollywood films.

Big Trouble in Little China was originally written as a period Western set in the 1880s with Jack Burton as a cowboy who rides into town. Producer Paul Monash bought Gary Goldman and David Weinstein's screenplay but after a reading he found that it was virtually unfilmable due to the bizarre mix of Chinese mythology and the Wild West setting. He had the two first-time screenwriters do a rewrite, but Monash still didn't like it. "The problems came largely from the fact it was set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, which affected everything — style, dialogue, action." The producer decided against having Goldman and Weinstein do additional rewrites because they didn't want to upgrade the story to a contemporary setting and felt that they had done their best.

Keith Barish and Monash brought in W.D. Richter, a veteran script doctor (and director of cult film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) to extensively rewrite the script. Almost everything in the original screenplay was discarded except for Lo Pan's story. "I realized what it needed wasn't a rewrite but a complete overhaul. It was a dreadful screenplay. This happens often when scripts are bought and there's no intention that the original writers will stay on." Richter's template for his draft was Rosemary's Baby (1968). "I believed if, like in Rosemary's Baby, you presented the foreground story in a familiar context — rather than San Francisco at the turn-of-the-century, which distances the audience immediately — and just have one simple remove, the world underground, you have a much better chance of making direct contact with the audience." Richter was having a hard time getting his own scripts made into movies so he tried sneaking in his own eccentric ideas into other people's projects. "It's often easier to take an idea that they bring to you and try to pass it through your sensibility. If you're honest up front, you get license to work with material you wouldn't get them to look at if it was your own story."

John Carpenter had wanted to do a film like Big Trouble in Little China for some time. Even though it contains elements of an action / adventure / comedy / mystery / ghost story / monster movie, it is, in the filmmaker's eyes, a kung fu film. "I have dug the genre ever since I first saw Five Fingers of Death in 1973. I always wanted to make my own kung fu film, and Big Trouble finally gave me the excuse to do just that." Barish and Monash offered Carpenter the movie in July of 1985. He had read the Goldman/Weinstein script and deemed it “outrageously unreadable though it had many interesting elements.” After reading Richter's script he decided to direct. Carpenter loved the off-the-wall style of Richter's writing and coupled with his love of kung fu films, it is easy to see why he jumped at the opportunity to make Big Trouble.

The two filmmakers had crossed paths before when Carpenter rewrote Richter's screenplay, The Ninja, a big-budget martial arts epic, for 20th Century Fox. In fact, Richter and Carpenter had both attended University of Southern California Film School from 1968 to 1971. "Rick and I went through all three production classes together. We each had our own crews, so we never actually collaborated on a film." Carpenter made his own additions to Richter's screenplay, which included strengthening Gracie Law's role and linking her to Chinatown, removing a few action sequences (due to budgetary restrictions), and eliminating material deemed offensive to Chinese Americans. Carpenter was disappointed that Richter didn't receive a proper screenwriting credit on the movie for all of his hard work. A ruling by the Writer's Guild of America gave Goldman and Weinstein sole credit.

Problems began to arise when Carpenter learned that the next Eddie Murphy vehicle, The Golden Child (1986), featured a similar theme and was going to be released near the same time as Big Trouble. Ironically, Carpenter was asked by Paramount to direct The Golden Child. "They aren't really similar. Originally, Golden Child was a serious Chinese, mystical, very sweet, very nice film. But now they don't know whether to make it funny or serious." However, as both films went into production, Carpenter's views of the rival production became increasingly bitter. "Golden Child is basically the same movie as Big Trouble. How many adventure pictures dealing with Chinese mysticism have been released by the major studios in the past 20 years? For two of them to come along at the exact same time is more than mere coincidence." To avoid being wiped out by the bigger star's film, Carpenter began shooting Big Trouble in October 1985 so that 20th Century Fox could open the film in July 1986 — a full five months before Golden Child’s release. This forced the filmmaker to shoot the film in 15 weeks with a $25 million budget.

To achieve the efficiency that he would need for such a shoot, Carpenter surrounded himself with a seasoned crew from his previous films. He reunited with three long-time collaborators, line producer Larry J. Franco (Starman), production designer John Lloyd (The Thing), and cinematographer Dean Cundey. The cameraman had worked with Carpenter on his most memorable features: Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981), and The Thing (1982). The director wanted as many familiar faces on board because "the size and complexity are so vast, that without it being in dependable, professional hands, it could have gone crazy...So I went back to the guys who had been with me in the trenches before on difficult projects."

Carpenter and Cundey had parted company before Starman due to "attitude problems." Cundey says it was due to scheduling conflicts, but Carpenter has said that they had problems while working on The Thing. However, when Big Trouble came along, Carpenter met Cundey in Santa Barbara one weekend. "His attitude about survival in the [movie] business coincided with my own. We had a really good time, so we decided to work together again."

Big Trouble also saw Carpenter re-team with his old friend, actor Kurt Russell who has appeared in several of the director's films, most notably Escape From New York and The Thing. At first, Carpenter didn't see Russell as Jack Burton. He wanted to cast a big star like Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson to compete with Golden Child's casting of Eddie Murphy. However, both Eastwood and Nicholson were busy and Fox suggested Russell because they felt that he was an up-and-coming star. The actor remembered reading the script and thinking that it "was fun, but I was soft on the character. I wasn't clear how to play it. There were a number of different ways to approach Jack, but I didn't know if there was a way that would be interesting enough for this movie." After Carpenter and Russell began to go over the script, the character started to take shape. The role was a nice change for Russell as Carpenter remembers, "Kurt was enthusiastic about doing an action part again, after playing so many roles opposite ladies recently. So off we went."

Production designer John Lloyd designed the elaborate underground sets and re-created Chinatown with three-story buildings, roads, streetlights, sewers and so on. This was necessary for the staging of complicated special effects and kung fu fight sequences that would have been very hard to do on location. For the film’s many fight scenes Carpenter “worked with my martial arts choreographer, James Lew, who literally planned out every move in advance. I used every cheap gag – trampolines, wires, reverse movements and upside down sets. It was much like photographing a dance.”

Another refreshing aspect of Big Trouble is the way it is immersed in authentic Chinese myths and legends. Carpenter explains: "for example, our major villain, Lo Pan, is a famous legend in Chinese history. He was a 'shadow emperor,' appointed by the first sovereign emperor, Chan Che Wong. Lo Pan was put on the throne as an impersonator, because Chan Che Wong was frightened of being assassinated. Then, Lo Pan tried to usurp the throne, and Chan Che Wong cursed him to exist without flesh for 2,000 years, until he can marry a green-eyed girl."

Big Trouble also places Asian actors in several prominent roles, including Victor Wong and Dennis Dun who is the real hero of the story, as opposed to Kurt Russell's character who is a constant source of comedy. "I've never seen this type of role for an Asian in an American film," Dun commented in an interview, "I'm Chinese in the movie, but the way it's written, I could be anybody." Big Trouble crushes the rather derogatory Charlie Chan stereotype by presenting interesting characters that just happen to be Chinese. Carpenter also wanted to avoid the usual cliché soundtrack. "The other scores for American movies about Chinese characters are basically rinky tink, chop suey music. I didn't want that for Big Trouble. I wanted a synthesizer score with some rock 'n' roll."

As if sensing the rough commercial road that the film would face, Russell felt that it would be a hard one to market. "This is a difficult picture to sell because it's hard to explain. It's a mixture of the real history of Chinatown in San Francisco blended with Chinese legend and lore. It's bizarre stuff. There are only a handful of non-Asian actors in the cast.” Unfortunately, mainstream critics and audiences did not care about this radical reworking of the kung fu film. Opening in 1,053 theaters on July 4, 1986, Big Trouble in Little China grossed $2.7 million in its opening weekend and went on to gross $11.1 million in North America, well below its estimated budget of $25 million.

The film received critically mixed reviews when it was first released. Ron Base, in his review for the Toronto Star, praised Russell's performance. "He does a great John Wayne imitation. But he's not just mimicking these heroes, he is using them to give his own character a broad, satiric edge.” Walter Goodman in The New York Times wrote, "In kidding the flavorsome proceedings even as he gets the juice out of them, the director, John Carpenter, is conspicuously with it.” Harlan Ellison praised the film, writing that it had "some of the funniest lines spoken by any actor this year to produce a cheerfully blathering live-action cartoon that will give you release from the real pressures of your basically dreary lives.”

However, in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote, "special effects don't mean much unless we care about the characters who are surrounded by them, and in this movie the characters often seem to exist only to fill up the foregrounds", and felt that it was "straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all of the usual stereotypes.” Paul Attanasio in the Washington Post, criticized the screenwriters for being "much better at introducing a character than they are at developing one.” David Ansen wrote, in his review for Newsweek, "though it is action packed, spectacularly edited and often quite funny, one can't help feeling that Carpenter is squeezing the last drops out of a fatigued genre.” In his review for The Times, David Robinson felt that Carpenter was, "overwhelmed by his own special effects, without a strong enough script to guide him.”

Big Trouble came out before the rise in popularity of Hong Kong action stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat, and filmmakers like John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai. Mainstream audiences weren’t ready for this kind of film. Despite being promoted rather heavily by 20th Century Fox, Big Trouble disappeared quickly from theaters. Bitter from having yet another film of his snubbed by critics and ignored by audiences, Carpenter swore off the big studios. He learned the hard way that working with them meant compromising his art in order to advance his career.

In an effort to have more freedom on the films he made, Carpenter became an independent yet again, cranking out Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) in rapid succession. The veteran filmmaker didn't fully embrace a big studio again until Escape From L.A. in 1996, but its disastrous critical and commercial reception drove Carpenter back underground where he's been ever since, continuing to make the kinds of films we wants to make. Big Trouble in Little China has stood the test of time. It was rediscovered on home video where it has become a celebrated cult film with a dedicated audience. Big Trouble has since become one of the most beloved films in Carpenter’s career and with good reason. It is a fun, clever film that still holds up today and remains one of the finest examples of cinema as pure entertainment.


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