Yesterday, the talk of Tinsel Town was the announcement that 20th Century Fox was looking to remake John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China” and have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson star and produce.
This news was a hard pill to swallow for me. Big Trouble in Little China is one of my favourite films and before it was one of my favourites, it was one of my older sister’s favourite films as well. Everything about the movie is perfect. Kurt Russell as “Jack Burton” is the perfect parody of the “Big White Dude Tells Jokes in Action movie” since he does barely anything of consequence until the final scene and is really just there to stand around and say funny stuff and be out of his element. The San Francisco residents of Chinatown are the real heroes, as well as Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law trying to protect new Americans from being smuggled. The action is quick, the backdrops are colourful and James Hong as David Lo Pan is absolutely iconic. John Carpenter, as he had done countless times, made a perfect movie that didn’t do well in the box office. It instead became a cult favourite on VHS and beyond. The wings of liberty have yet to lose a feather.
This isn’t the first film from Carpenter and Russell turned into a remake. “The Thing” was given a prequel treatment in 2011 trying to replace practical effects (which were more than capable) with CGI. It’s too bad because I don’t think the film itself was that bad. Mary Elizabeth Winstead was a good protagonist and Joel Edgerton was serviceable. The problem was the movie suffered from modern mindset instead of trying to do something practical. It could have continued the story of the alien. Instead it died in the snow as a deformed reminder of the dangers of 21st century remakes: abusing CGI because it’s accessible.
The reaction I’ve heard from most people who love Big Trouble in Little China is pure horror. It’s a classic that shouldn’t be tainted by modern hands. But the louder complaint?
“It’s another remake! Ugh! Be creative Hollywood!”
You are just a remake of your parents with better access to computers
Hollywood is no less creative today than it has ever been. When it wasn’t adapting comic books, it was adapting novels. When it wasn’t adapting novels, it was adapting Broadway. When it wasn’t adapting Broadway, it was adapting from outside of America. When an original script is made and succeeds, it tends to be celebrated as a breath of fresh air. When an original script is made and fails, everything of WHY it failed is ignored in favour of just lamenting the public rejection of original content. Everyone likes to say they want original movies with original stories, and maybe they do, but they want the story they know more. They want their comic book adaptations. They want popular media to be adapted. As it always has been. As it always will be.
I don’t have a problem with remakes. I have a problem with bad films. It’s okay to use the past as your creative sandbox. Companies like Disney made their mark on adaptations like Snow White and Seven Dwarves, only to turn around and force America to change copyright laws to ensure they hold onto their intellectual properties forever. We like to think of everything before 1900 to be open source, public and acceptable material to use in our intellectual content, but the moment it’s something from the 20th century we freak out. Did you know that you can write a novel and use James Bond in Canada but you can’t in the United States or the United Kingdom? Why? Copyright law. It’s stupid.
The problem is how lazy so many remakes, prequels and sequels have been. I already mentioned The Thing. You know off the top of your head all of the movies and TV shows that bombed trying to jump off from an already existing point. But nobody thinks about the fantastic work done by FX’s Fargo or the fresh, original tales being told in NBC’s Hannibal. Some people have watched every season of NBC’s Friday Night Lights without watching the original film. I haven’t even brought up Buffy: The Vampire Slayer yet. TV was perfectly capable of adapting existing material and either comparing to its level or surpassing it. Why? Because it was made well. It didn’t matter if it came from an already published idea. It was simply good. For all of my examples there’s a cemetery containing Clerks the TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles and more.
Leaving television, what about great remakes in film? We could start with Wizard of Oz. Sure, you know the Wizard of Oz was an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book but the 1939 film you know and love was actually the third attempt at a full feature version of the story. Larry Semon’s 1925 film “The Wizard of Oz” was an 81 minute full feature shown on television in three parts and was supposed to goto theatres but Chadwick Pictures went bankrupt before it could. Pre-dating that was the silent 1914 feature “The New Wizard of Oz”, 25 years before the Judy Garland classic that your mother likely owns on three different media formats.
You can also look at The Maltese Falcon, first made in 1931 starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade until a decade later it was remade with Humphrey Bogard as Spade. We remember the 1941 film to the point where nobody calls it a remake. The point is that remakes can work. Sequels can work, as we’ve seen from Mad Max: Fury Road. Prequels years after the original can work as X-Men: First Class proved. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it!
So why is it wrong with Big Trouble In Little China?
Honestly… it isn’t.
“I’m a reasonable guy. But, I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”
It’s difficult to say. There’s nothing wrong with it. The movie didn’t make a lot of money in the theatres in original release, which is the perfect kind of movie to remake. We shouldn’t be resurrecting just properties that were huge successes. We should also be resurrecting the ones that failed but had potential. The VHS and beyond sales for Big Trouble in Little China proved it had that kind of potential. And The Rock? The Rock hits movies out of the park. So many of his recent movies have been a balance of either “crap” or “fun without substance” and he whips them across the box office like nothing. No I won’t use a wrestling metaphor here. It’s said to be his favourite film, so maybe he understands exactly what made the movie so fun. Maybe he understands the heart of it. Does he make a great Jack Burton? Hardly, but he could put his own spin to Jack. That’s a good thing! Nobody can be Kurt Russell! Why try? Be something fresh! Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ remake right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”
And let me also make clear what Birth.Movies.Death made clear: remakes/sequels/prequels do not ruin the original material. Prometheus did not ruin Alien. Terminator: Genesys will not ruin The Terminator. The Thing did not ruin The Thing. Titanic 2 did not ruin Titanic. Get it? It won’t ruin it. You won’t be watching Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express and suddenly have PTSD flackbacks of The Rock is his new sooped up Pork Chop 9000 having a Fast and the Furious truck chase pumped full of CGI and green screen. Big Trouble in Little China’s remake could be the worst movie of the 21st century and it won’t do a thing to tarnish the beauty of the original. Remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: “Have ya paid your dues, Jack?” “Yessir, the check is in the mail.”
It bothers me because I think of what the movie might be if they get desperate. If they get like The Thing and just CGI the hell out of it. If they know they have The Rock so they just make the typical Rock action movie. If the writers don’t get what made it great. If The Rock, as producer, decides Jack Burton has to kick more ass. The overall issue I have is that I feel, at best, they can’t top it. They can only make a decent movie. At worst, you get something like Total Recall. But this isn’t The Rock’s problem or 20th Century Fox’ problem. That’s my problem, and I have to get over it. I’m sure there were Mad Max fans who were furious they were attempting a new movie. Those fans were shut up quick by the best movie of the year. The Rock and 20th Century Fox could do something I can’t fathom: They could make Big Trouble in Little China better.
And if it doesn’t? Call the President.
Note: I guess Cracked writer Luis Prada wrote something about remakes/reboots today that shares similar themes. Totally by coincidence. Go read Prada’s piece. It’s good.