Tom Jolliffe takes in a brilliant mullets double bill of Big Trouble in Little China and They Live...
John Carpenter has made so many brilliant films. He’s crossed effortlessly between the horror genre and action. He’s also made some of the most iconic horror films ever made. With so many genre classics like Halloween, or The Thing, some of Carpenters films gain more of a cult following.
Back in the 80s films looked fantastic, before film stocks became a little too clean in the late 90s onward, or the docu style boom hit, and well before shooting on film turned to shooting in HD. Movies looked like movies in the 80s. Now the line between what one can shoot at home and what the studios can shoot is becoming blurred. Back then though, so many great looking films, brilliantly shot, beautifully lit. Carpenter himself helmed some darn fine looking cinematic treats during the 80s. The Thing looks phenomenal. Big Trouble in Little China, as well as They Live, both look superb. Fantastically cinematographed in glorious wide-screen.
Here I look at Carpenter's thoroughly enjoyable two-some. Both great concepts, well delivered, chock full of memorable lines, and memorable moments with magnificently-mulleted leading men.
The main mullet on display here is that of one of the mullet kings of cinema, Mr. Kurt Russell. Big Trouble in Little China is an awesome action fantasy. Russell is Jack Burton, who is owed money from his Chinese buddy Wang (Dennis Dun), and goes to collect. A simple pick up of Wang’s girlfriend from the airport turns into an action romp with martial arts, underground chambers, magic and of course mullets.
The film looks great. Carpenter knows how to craft a good looking movie. This is polished, and eye-catching. The cinematography isn’t the be all either - the production design, the set design, all fantastic. As well as looking great, the film sounds great. Carpenter is also well known for his scores as well as directing. The score here is excellent, occasionally reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, but always with that solid Carpenter stamp.
Russell is great in the lead. He’s got plenty of star power and charisma, and the necessary likeability. The films serious by any stretch either, there’s plenty of comedic moments and for Russell, it’s effortless. Dun is here to provide some martial arts mayhem but he’s also a decent support for Russell. He’s likeable. Kim Cattrall appears, long before she and Sarah Jessica Parker became known for being promiscuous ladies of a certain age in Sex and the City. James Hong is a great bad guy in this too, and Victor Wong - who’s appeared in as countless a list of cult films as Hong - also appears.
Action aficionados will also enjoy spotting just about every Chinese stunt man who appeared in any memorable action film of the 80s and early 90s. There’s Al Leong (you’ll know him if you see him, or to be more precise, the guy who eats a Crunch bar in Die Hard), James Lew (the Chinese guy who attacks a near nut naked Jean-Claude Van Damme in Timecop with a knife), George Cheung (the guy who Rambo blows up with an exploding arrow in Rambo: First Blood Part II). Basically there’s just a whole host of guys that if you’ve seen more than three 80s action films, you’ll recognise.
Big Trouble in Little China is often a film that when seen in younger days, remains a firm favourite over the years. This is the case for me. It’s a brilliant action fantasy, with cracking action and it’s also pretty original. There have been few films like this since either. The mix of action, humour, fantasy, the eclectic cast, the synth music and the look, is wonderful.
Wrestlers in movies… Let’s face it, the record is not good. Often they’re pretty terrible actors. Hulk Hogan is the champion of wrestlers who cannot transfer their ring charisma to screen. He’s appeared in some abysmal movies and his best work remains his bit part in Rocky III (playing a wrestler…called Thunderlips!). Many others over the years have tried and failed to make an impact in the cinematic realm. More recently, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin have been successful in their own rights (the Rock moreso, of course).
One man who never quite made it big in movies was Roddy Piper. Here sporting a majestic mullet. However, unlike the painfully wooden Hogan, Piper had some charisma on screen and showed a lot of promise. They Live is his breakout film. It also remains the biggest film he’s done and the best. Piper’s debut is solid. He’s not Daniel Day-Lewis, that much is sure, but in a time of stoic, hardened action men, he holds his own with physique, charisma and screen presence. There were a lot of action stars in the late 80s and early 90s. Many had very illustrious straight to video careers, including Piper. Many had more of an impact on the big screen. Piper however just seemed to sink into video straight after They Live - this despite the film being a moderate success (in comparison to its budget) on the big screen.
Though Piper deserved a little more of a big screen impact, his work on this remains strong and indeed left a legacy on pulp culture. His ad-libbed line “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all outta bubble gum!” would be pilfered and used in Duke Nukem. The films infamous 5 minute fight scene between Piper and Keith David (solid as ever in this) was also spoofed (brilliantly) in South Park. Piper at least would become a fairly reliable presence in his straight to video work, and he also did two enjoyably goofy action films with Tae-Bo maestro Billy Blanks, Tough and Deadly and Back in Action. I recall the video cover of Tough and Deadly drawing me in at the video shop. It just screamed “rent me!”
Piper aside, They Live is brilliant. The premise is great. Aliens live among us, slowly taking over the world under our noses without us realising. They are taking over our wealth, taking over the positions of power and money to control everything. A group of rebels discover this and manage to design special glasses allowing the wearer to see through their mind control and see their true form, as well as the hidden, subliminal messages in TV, magazines and billboards. It’s a brilliant concept, but it’s also very well done. When Piper gets his hands on these glasses, allowing him to see who the aliens are, they look effectively scary. Posters hide messages such as “OBEY!”
As said before, it looks fantastic. That’s a given with Carpenter involved. Not just thanks to the cinematography but because of the design in the film. The switch between the perceived reality and actual reality when Piper wears the glasses is very well done. Carpenter knows how to do action. He does so efficiently here. The memorable moment is of course the 5 minute fight. It’s exhausting to watch (in a good way), as it must have been to shoot. Piper can sell a fight particularly well on screen. A wrestling background, just as a martial arts background, doesn’t always automatically mean said actor can sell a fight well on screen. Plenty of wrestlers and martial artists have looked slow and cumbersome fighting on celluloid. Piper however, really throws himself into the action. Carpenter also delivers another solid score in this too.
They Live is very much a cult movie. It goes by unnoticed by many but has a great fan base amongst genre fans and those who’ve been turned onto it. It’s just well made, simple as that. Carpenter in his pomp, before his gradual decline through the 90s. It’s by no means his best, but it’s still one of his most enjoyable. For those whose radar this one has slipped under, I would recommend it. It’s a solid mix of a good concept, decent action and humour.