Today is the 64th birthday of actor Kurt Russell. A glorious man who built his career on Disney Pictures and becoming John Carpenter’s John Wayne. That dissonance between action hero and Disney star gives example to the diverse skill set Russell had all throughout his career. I believe his best work is with John Carpenter though and if the readers of The Balcony are anything like me they are going to be celebrating Kurt Russell’s birthday quoting along to the monologues of the greatest action hero of the ’80s, Big Trouble in Little China‘s Jack Burton.
I never drive faster than I can see and it’s all in the reflexes. Jack Burton is a truck driver, and the hero of his own movie. He is the ultimate badass in his own mind. He is a sly, cunning, wordsmith who gets all the girls, and takes on any guy who will fight him. The ultimate man’s man, but that’s only a hypothetical Jack Burton. In truth Jack Burton is the everyman, which is a much more appealing and relatable thing to be. He just so happens to be stuck in a movie, but he has no idea about any of that. He is struggling to get along just like everyone else. His machismo and strength are all in his head. He’s actually a clumsy baffoon, who barely gets by on his own confidence, and doesn’t even know how to shoot a gun. When he tries to pick up Gracie Law (Kim Cattral) at the beginning of the film she flat turns him down and emasculates him in the airport. It’s in that emasculation that lies Jack Burton’s greatest strengths as a character. His self image screams Clint Eastwood, but he’s nearly useless, and only saves the day by sheer, dumb, luck.
Henry Swanson is a persona Jack Burton applies when looking for captured Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), and Swanson is a version of Jack Burton. Among his finer traits include his nerdiness, sheepishness around women, and once again, emasculation. He mentions that his wife wouldn’t like him being here, as he removes a tie that she bought him. Truthfully, Henry Swanson is closer to the real Jack Burton than the macho-save-the-day thinking in his inner monologues. Kurt Russell is a great enough actor to pull off Swanson and Burton, and still make him seem like a real hero.
Jack Burton’s confidence is the key to his winning over audiences and Gracie Law alike. When he was Swanson earlier in the film he walked right up to a man with thunder and lightning crashing out of his hands and punched him in the face. It did absolutely nothing, and Burton was sent flying across the room, but he did fight. He’d carry out that same confidence throughout the rest of the picture only tucking his tail and running for seconds before coming back to his senses. His confidence is the only thing that links his personification of Jack Burton with his other Carpenter action heroes, Snake Plisskin (Escape From New York/L.A.) and R.J. MacReady (The Thing). There’s similar dna in the same man who punched someone with supernatural abilities to the same man who set an entire Research Station on fire and yelled “**** You Too” at a screaming alien.
Kurt Russell was John Carpenter’s muse. Russell understood Carpenter’s heroes better than anyone else, and his inborn swagger and light footed comedic touches and body language made him a standout in the 80s. There was two types of action heroes in that decade, the rock-hard-stone-men of impossible bodies like Schwarzeneggar and Lundgren, and then there were those who were thrown into action scenarios who had no intentions of ever becoming action heroes like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones. Jack Burton strikes a line between the two and that makes him feel very different for the decade. His influence has been felt years later as people like Nathan Fillion (Firefly) and Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) have applied similarly goofball qualities while being the heroes of their respective films and television shows. What’s so funny about all of this is that people like Jack Burton are really the sidekicks. Dennis Dun who plays Wang Chi does all the ass kicking in Big Trouble in Little China. When Burton recalls the story years later though, he’ll be the hero, and I’ll love him for it. It’s all in the reflexes.