If writers Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein had their way when they first sold their script for Big Trouble in Little China, the Jack Burton that we know and love would have never existed. Their hero was a “blowhard” cowboy named Wiley Prescott, who was more like Indiana Jones than he was a one liner-slinging all-talk tough guy, and his adventures with Chinese mysticism would have taken place in turn-of-the-century San Francisco instead of 1985 Chinatown. But as they already told us in detail, things didn’t end up going their way, and it’s only through some ancient Hollywood magic that this film became a massive cult classic.
Watching John Carpenter’s film after it was released in 1985 was bittersweet for Goldman, who says it was “fun and worked on its own terms,” but he wasn’t happy with it. The original writers felt it fell short of its potential and was too campy. Specifically, Weinstein didn’t like Kurt Russell’s performance as Jack Burton.
“When I originally saw it I thought, ‘Oh, this actor’s doing a really bad John Wayne imitation,’” he tells us. “I have nothing against the actor, I think he’s really talented, but I don’t think this was his finest hour.”
Russell, of course, wasn’t the studio’s first choice to play Jack or Wiley. If the film had been a Western, and, more importantly, if Goldman and Weinstein had known to lasso their own star, they would have gone with the guy you would not only want starring in a Western, but also directing it.
“Gary and I really thought of Clint Eastwood originally to be the director/star of it,” Weinstein reveals. “For some reason we never talked to him and who knows if he would have taken it on but he’s known, just the opposite of Larry Gordon, as someone who really respects writers. You wouldn’t guess that but it’s true and he’ll do anything to keep them on. You have to make the changes he wants and you would have to tailor it more to him, but imagine this as a Clint Eastwood production versus John Carpenter and you can kind of see our perspective.”
Jack Nicholson was also on the studio’s short list, but Carpenter had only one man in mind for the white tank top and tight jeans. Carpenter wanted to work with Russell again, and he says the studio was on board. Even when Russell had the role, he wasn’t sure if he wanted it because he didn’t necessarily understand the character. Fortunately, he figured it out and the role has since become iconic.
“He was generally the first choice that we had,” Carpenter says. “Kurt’s not the kind of actor who brings his personality into a movie. He’s just a constant actor, so he plays the role, he plays the script. We thought about it a long time and I said, ‘Well, what do you want to play here?’ So, I think he plays this blowhard John Wayne. That’s what I’ve decided.”
Dennis Dun landed the role of Jack’s partner-in-heroics, Wang Chi, after the studio disagreed with Carpenter’s first choice of Jackie Chan. Carpenter enjoyed Dun’s work as Herbert Kwong in the 1985 film Year of the Dragon, so he offered him the role and Dun accepted, noting it was an exceptional opportunity for a Chinese-American actor at the time. Dun didn’t think much about the other roles at the time, but looking back on Big Trouble in Little China 30 years later, he recognizes how great Russell was as Jack.
“Now he seems so perfect,” Dun says. “They had worked together before and there was a chemistry with Carpenter. That was his leading man. Just the feeling of Kurt, he makes you smile when you think about him and the whole experience. The character, and his openness to everything, it was joyful working with him, just so much fun on the set. The whole thing was a magical experience, except when it came out it didn’t do that well. It was kind of disappointing.”
Writer W.D. Richter has a special bond with Jack, since he is the man who is responsible for such lines as “May the wings of liberty never lose a feather” and the subtle “Everybody relax, I’m here,” which probably doesn’t work without Russell’s own crackerjack timing. Writing this character was just as fun as fans might expect, because Jack is truly that one-of-a-kind hero (who isn’t really a hero) that a writer can relate to.
“It was really fun to write because once I had Jack Burton I just liked being with him every day, writing him and he’s talking to you, I swear, it’s the strangest feeling. You don’t think, ‘What should he say next?’ He says it. I don’t know where that comes from,” Richter laughs. “You don’t know him but he’s talking through you and constantly surprising and delighting you.”
“He’s definitely unique, there’s no doubt about that,” Carpenter says. “Jack is a character who doesn’t know he’s a sidekick. He thinks he’s the hero of the story but he’s not. He’s a sidekick.”
The hero, then, would be Wang, the man who loses a bet to Jack early on and brings him along to pick up his green-eyed bride, Miao Yin. In fact, Dun recalls Carpenter telling him during production that he was much more than a sidekick, despite the actor simply viewing Jack and Wang as partners and equals.
“When I came on the set Carpenter was telling me, ‘You’re the hero of this film,’” Dun says. “He kept telling me through the shooting, which was a great thing to hear for a Chinese-American trying to make it in the film industry. I didn’t really know much about it, it was only my second project. So, I was aware that he was heroic but I didn’t believe… It’s interesting, I didn’t think until later he was like being a parody of John Wayne. As I saw them shoot the thing I thought, oh, Jack Burton is accidentally a hero and when he does something he kind of clumsily does it, but he does it in his own way. Like in the end when he’s trying to find that demon and the guy falls on his knife and he’s stuck under there.”
Richter doesn’t remember much about Wiley, but he’s sure that the Goldman/Weinstein character wasn’t the “awe-inspiring nitwit that Kurt Russell played,” and the original writers agree. The studio, they say, was tired of cowboys and astronauts being the heroes, and so they wanted a profession that was more relatable to moviegoers in 1985. Apparently that was driving trucks.
“I remember we were sitting with the executive in charge of production of the movie they made,” Weinstein explains. “He wasn’t exactly the sharpest blade in the drawer, his name was Larry Marks and he said, ‘Well, we decided that cowboys and astronauts are yesterday’s news. We decided to update and make him a truck driver.’ As if truck drivers were ever any sort of drama. And it’s that kind of arrogance – ‘Oh, we know what filmmaking is and in the last 50-70-80 years of filmmaking, we decided that the hot genre now is the truck driver genre.’ Of course a few years later Silverado came out and was a success, The Right Stuff was a huge success. And then The Unforgiven, which won seven Oscars, and then Dances with Wolves came out within 10 years after their pronouncement that astronauts and cowboys were yesterday’s news. So that was part of his campaign of delusion and arrogance and destruction that we came under.”
And yet this truck driver eventually became a fan favorite, mostly because of Richter’s ability to make him so ridiculous and cartoonish. He was arrogant and still somehow charming, believing that he was the hero, but we could see in Russell’s eyes that even Jack knew that he wasn’t the real hero. Jack should have been one of the great action heroes of the ‘80s because of his flaws, but audiences didn’t seem to understand that.
“Even Carpenter said, ‘I don’t know if they’re ready for this.’ And apparently they weren’t,” Dun laughs.
“It was extremely different because it was so silly,” Carpenter recalls. “The character is such an idiot. He’s really challenged. Extremely challenged human being. A blowhard. And he fucks up all the time. He doesn’t do much throughout the whole film in terms of being an action hero, which is very different from all the other action heroes that were out around the time. Also one of the reasons why the studio was a little less than happy with it.”
Richter still doesn’t know where this character came from, but it’s a film about ancient Chinese magic so his explanation makes sense.
“He came out of thin air,” Richter offers. “He just babbled for me, when I put him in that dark and stormy night that opens the movie, and that can happen. If a writer’s lucky it happens sometimes, it’s like you’re channeling a living, breathing person and you’re just writing down what he says as fast as you can. It’s not typical, I guess it was for Mozart though, it just comes out of your hand and I think that’s a lot of the reason people enjoy Jack, because it was kind of sincere, effortless nonsense.”
Jack also didn’t get the girl in the end, which was especially unique. And the girl he should have ended up with wasn’t the typical damsel in distress. Gracie Law was a strong female character, perhaps stronger than Jack, especially when she was trading barbs with him. For this role, Carpenter had only one actress in mind – Kim Cattrall – and convincing the studio to hire her was also an uphill battle that he won, and for good reason.
“A strong woman is fun and I had a conversation with Kim Cattrall who is just an incredible comedian,” he says. “She’s just amazing, and I thought she’s ready to do some really interesting things. Where it’s a scene where she walks in, Jack is sitting with some Chinese acquaintances he just made and Kim walks into the scene and hits one of the guys in the arm, for no reason. And it’s just a great moment. I can’t say enough about her. She’s really talented.”
Richter suggests that part of the reason the movie failed at the time, and Jack didn’t go on to become one of the most beloved action characters of the ‘80s, was because Big Trouble in Little China featured as much dialogue as it had action. Fans didn’t want that. They wanted non-stop action and violence, and so it’s a “real shame,” he says, that people didn’t relate to him more. “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. Maybe that’s what people connect with — they wish they had said that but they think, ‘Oh God, not the way he said it.’”
At some point, the big screen adventures of Jack Burton will continue, but it will be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson behind the wheel of the Pork Chop Express. The WWE Champion turned action movie god claims that he’s a huge fan of Carpenter’s film and especially Russell’s portrayal of the character, and so Johnson has said that if the story isn’t right, he won’t do it. Richter is naturally protective of his character, mostly because of what he means to fans.
“There’s obviously a little bit of burn going around the internet about The Rock becoming Jack Burton and somebody said, ‘Kurt Russell owns Jack Burton like Jeff [Bridges] owns the Dude,’ and I thought, he did it,” Richter says. “He got underneath that guy’s skin and has made so many people smile, so great.”
After the news of the remake went viral, Carpenter said he has nothing to do with a new film, but joked that it all depends on the money. He also offered an indifferent endorsement of a remake, but he tells us now, “I have mixed feelings. I don’t think it’s a smart thing to do.”
More than anything, he says of his movie’s sidekick: “There will be no other Jack Burton but Kurt Russell, as far as I’m concerned.”