Everybody Relax, I’m Here: An Appreciation of Jack Burton and Big Trouble in Little China
Big Trouble in Little China’s Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is my favorite action hero/sidekick because he is all too human. He is insecure, boisterous and has an unearned confidence that keeps him alive. The brilliance of Jack Burton lies in the fact that he isn’t a cop, spy, superhero, savior or robot. He is a truck driver who is prone to blowhard antics and loud proclamations. However, when it comes down to fighting for others (and his truck) he squares off against pure evil and puts a knife in its head.
One of the reasons Jack Burton works so well is because of Kurt Russell’s partnership with writer W.D. Richter and director John Carpenter. The Big Trouble script was originally written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein and was supposed to be a western with Clint Eastwood in mind. However, once Carpenter got involved the plot changed and morphed into the story of a truck driver failing his way to the top. Richter, Carpenter and Russell created a unique character that pretty much everyone misunderstood because he was unlike anything audiences had ever seen. I love that there is no ego to Russell’s performance and his unselfishness allowed others to shine while be bumbled around and got uncomfortable in elevators.
I love the random burp.
John Carpenter wanted Burton to be an “anti-John Wayne” that featured all of the swagger and none of the skill. Russell took that to heart and imbued Jack with a legit physicality and little self-awareness. He is a blowhard with a heart of gold and gets legitimately flustered when a beautiful woman comes in contact with him. I like that Jack Burton wasn’t incredibly muscular and instead looked like he lifted drywall on his days off. Burton’s lack of cartoonish muscles helped create an everyday man vibe that stood in stark contrast to action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. I also appreciate that Jack Burton didn’t get the girl (Kim Cattrall was out of his league) and ended up in the same place he began. Jack Burton started the film on the road and ended the film on the road.
Much ado has been made of Jack Burton the sidekick. I 100% agree with him not being the hero because Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is the real hero who can punch, kick and sword fight with the best of them. However, I’m more impressed that Jack kept swinging away despite his obvious limitations and skills. Big Trouble in Little China plays out believably because Burton’s only chance to live is by dumb luck. The fact that he has no formal training makes me like him more. The guy has no fighting skills yet keeps running into the fray and surviving. The fact that a truck driver survived an epic magical battle is pretty amazing when you think about it. Don’t even get me started on his disguises because they are incredible, terrible and delusional at the same time.
John Carpenter recently did an interview with Uproxx and he said this about Burton.
“On some level I think we’re all Jack Burtons, we all talk too much and we’re comically kind of tragically delusional and I think that’s what’s fun about him and us as a species.
Carpenter’s comment reminded me of a chapter from B-movie king Bruce Campbell’s autobiography. In the book If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, Bruce tells a funny story about the time he showed off his horse riding skills while training for a role. Bruce had some equestrian skills from Army of Darkness and thought he was wowing all the trainers and production staff. When he got off the horse he asked the instructor how it looked, the instructor replied “Son, you look like a monkey humping a football.” When you watch Big Trouble in Little China look for the nuances that Russell adds to the action scenes. He is clumsy, cheeky and never pretty while in action. However, I bet in Burton’s mind he looks like Bruce Lee met Clint Eastwood and spawned the greatest action hero ever. Take a look at the picture below and you will notice a difference in shooting faces.
What sets Jack Burton apart from other cult classic blowhards is that he has a genuine heart to go with his absurdity. Unlike Bruce Campbell’s Ash from Army of Darkness he isn’t responsible for the troubles and inadvertently finds himself in one dangerous situation after another. I love Ash but he is a pure and unadulterated dipshit. He can’t remember three simple words and over the course of a couple of films he becomes a womanizing maniac.
There is nothing mean about Jack Burton and aside from some delusions of grandeur he has other people’s best interests in mind. He walks a fine “blowhard” line that never veers into the throat-ripping territory of MacGruber or the gonzo territory of Ash. The Jack Burton character has always had the luxury of not becoming watered down due to terrible sequels. Until the comic books came around in 2014, Jack Burton remained a singular and unique creation that didn’t need a sequel. I think the sequels would’ve been in the joke and it would’ve been a Fletch/Fletch Returns scenario that took what we loved about the character, turned it to 11 and lost what we liked about him in the first place. The only sequel I’d pay to see is if Burton accidentally jumped into Optimus Prime and saves the world. I’d call it Big Trouble on Little Earth and it would be a buddy-comedy where Burton complains that Optimus won’t let him drive.
I’ve always been a fan of action heroes that feel like actual human beings. Whether it be Keanu Reeves in Speed, Boromir in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring or Emily Blunt in Sicario I like fallibility in heroes. I like the Marvel cinematic universe but the superhero antics have kept me from caring about the action. The only scenes I’ve loved are when Tony escapes the cave in Iron Man and when Vision messes up the dinner in Captain America: Civil War. The same goes for the Fast & the Furious series. I appreciate that the first Furious movie features the heroes getting owned by a renegade truck driver. My favorite action films are 13 Assassins, The Raid, Aliens, Seven Samurai and The 13th Warrior (yeah, I said it). The characters in these films are outnumbered, outgunned and their victories are bittersweet.
If Dwayne Johnson ever gets around to the Big Trouble in little China remake I hope he remembers the moment when he got beat up by the villagers and monkeys in The Rundown. I think his size could be an advantage if he plays Burton as a muscular dude who has never been in a fight. Thus, the muscles would get in the way and become a joke. I’d prefer for the original to be re-released and become the highest-grossing film of all time. However, that won’t happen, and if it has to happen I think The Rock loves it enough to give it an earnest shot.
John Carpenter thinks that Jack Burton is an absolute idiot (in a good way). However, I’ve never looked at him as a total dope. The guy obviously has deep-seated insecurities but they never come to the surface because we don’t spend that much time with him. Thus, we are left with a beautifully original character who cannot be replicated or mimicked. Jack Burton is the most human of heroes and Kurt Russell played him perfectly.
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