Nostalgia trip: a book, film and album on the theme of trouble

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:53pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:53pm

Big Trouble in Little China - big trouble for director 

For just over a decade during the 1970s and '80s, John Carpenter's career was on the up, starting with low-budget actioner Assault on Precinct 13, through to slasher smash Halloween, and breaking sci-fi ground with Escape from New York and The Thing.

And then it all came to a crashing halt in 1986 with Big Trouble with Little China, the box-office bomb starring Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, and Dennis Dun that all but ended Carpenter's Hollywood career. There were screenplay issues, casting problems, studio interference.

But the film has since become a cult movie, with viewers lapping up its bizarre yet comic combination of slack-jawed Western and kung fu cliches. Jack Burton (Russell) is a John Wayne-type truck driver, the kind who wants to mind his own business. But when his friend's fiancée is kidnapped by a group of Asian mystics, he descends into the bowels of San Francisco's Chinatown to battle magicians, monsters and martial artists in an attempt rescue her from an evil sorcerer.

Big Trouble is as ridiculous as it sounds, and for those lucky enough to come across a VHS copy post-failure, discovering its genius is akin to finding the Holy Grail inside the Ark of the Covenant, all placed in a temple of doom. In retrospect, it's just too bad the movie doesn't compare to those whip-cracking adventures. And it's only a little ironic, considering Trouble is both completely dated and yet way ahead of its time.

In its Hong Kong-style chopsocky blend of overly choreographed fight scenes, the film predated the '90s obsession with the kung fu genre. In its boisterous sense of satirical humour, it flipped stereotypical action flick conventions - nowhere more apparent than in its supposed lead, Jack Burton.

He's really the sidekick, as would be the reality for an ignorant American whose only skill is popping speed pills on an all-night delivery, and it's his martial arts-trained partner who does most of the fighting. That makes for plenty of belly laughs as the trucker bumbles his way through the story, not once but twice knocking himself out while attempting to show off his guns. Overdone humour today maybe, but fresh as a daisy on its release.

Trouble has lost a little of its charm over the years, especially when placed alongside Carpenter's ever-appreciating '80s oeuvre. The effects are tacky, the dialogue cheesy, the action scenes episodic. This might be a large part of its appeal for some viewers, but it's unlikely to win over modern 12-year-olds who have been fed a diet of smarter-than-thou big-budget spectacles.

For a certain crowd of ageing troublemakers though, Big Trouble in Little China still holds special appeal due to its wow factor that once demanded repeat viewings. Those who remember it fondly might be slightly disappointed, but the rest of us are not so troubled.

Big Trouble by Dave Barry - a study in chaos

In this zany, knockabout novel printed just before the turn of the millennium, almost every character who comes into focus is bad news.

"Every idiot in this town who owns a gun, which is basically every idiot in this town, would grab his gun, jump into his car … and lay rubber for I-95. Inside of 10 minutes, the city is gridlocked … [and the] whole town turns into the end of a Stephen King novel," writes satirist Dave Barry, showing his talent for mounting exaggeration.

The thrust of Barry's study in chaos is simple. Two Russian gangsters are hired to kill fraudster Arthur Herk, but they are foiled by an adolescent playing a game that involves him blasting Herk's daughter, Jennifer, with a water pistol. With mischievous glee, Barry ratchets up the confusion with skyjackings, hostage crises, even nuclear weapons. No scenario, no matter how wild, is off limits.

And yet much of the action is confined to the serenely named Miami suburb of Coconut Grove, which serves as the playground for all kinds of oddballs. The lunatic line-up includes a homeless stranger who lives up a tree, two desperadoes who harry tourists at parking meters and a seductive illegal alien.

Oh, and let's not forget the non-human eccentrics that flit at the fringes of Barry's ridiculous storyline. The free-range menagerie includes a monster hallucinogenic South American toad, a daft dog called Roger, and a python called Daphne who runs amok at the airport, attacking the hitmen. Even goats play a cameo role in the screwball comedy.

A respected comedy writer, Barry won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988 "for his consistently effective use of humour as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns". Big Trouble seems slightly flat compared with Barry's stellar columns for The Miami Herald, but it still has plenty of caustic one-liners such as "I love Special Executive Order 768 dash 4".

Or witness Barry's take on Coconut Grove's resident mad dog, Roger. Like most of the characters, Roger is an almighty nuisance - real trouble, just like Barry. The former class clown once told the Chicago Tribune that he was "hostile, vicious, unsafe and reprehensible".

Big Trouble was made into a film in 2001, but its screening was postponed because the studio felt a key plot detail - hoods smuggling weapons past airport security - would cause a stir in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

Big Trouble  by Dave Barry (Putnam) 

Trouble Man by Marvin Gaye - his only movie score

Trouble Man was the title of a 1972 thriller-by-numbers blaxploitation movie, but it could easily have been the title for a biopic of the composer of the film's stunning soundtrack.

Marvin Gaye's only movie score is often overlooked in the early 1970s canon of film albums that boasts the heavyweight genius of Isaac Hayes' Shaft and Curtis Mayfield's Superfly. But Gaye's tortured life following the album's release gives the score greater poignancy and remains a painfully evocative musical epitaph.

The haunting, plangent guitar notes that open the soundtrack herald an album of bluesy jazz that swings and pulses with seething tension. It tracks the story of Mr T, a private detective and lookout man for the cops who has connections with the Los Angeles underworld. Taking what seems to be a routine job, he becomes unwittingly embroiled in a gangland war.

Gaye's soundtrack crests with the Trouble Man theme, a lolloping ballad that's punctuated with startling orchestral crescendos. In texture, it traces the torrid life that awaited the singer.

At the time of the album's recording, the handsome star of Motown hits such as I Heard it Through the Grapevine and It Takes Two was the biggest name in black music. His 11th album, the politically charged What's Going On (1971), was a critical and commercial hit that won him a million-dollar contract, the biggest deal for a black artist. His tours were sell-outs, and he was winning plaudits for his social commentary at a time of enormous political upheaval in the US.

But despite his success, Gaye had already embarked on the path of drug and alcohol abuse that would wreck his life. Whipped as a child by his father, he had a delicate psychological disposition that resulted in a near breakdown when his duetting star, Tammi Terrell, died of cancer in 1970. It prompted Gaye to drop out of the music business and even consider a career in American football.

Once back on the road and in the charts again, his marriage to Motown boss Berry Gordy's sister, Anna, began to suffer as Gaye took on a string of mistresses. Paranoia and depression set in as he turned to cocaine, and his career began to fall apart. In the early '80s, he cleaned up during a period of self-imposed exile in Belgium.

While his career picked up and he began having hits again, most notably with the 1982 single Sexual Healing, Gaye returned to drugs - and his life came to a violent end in 1984 when his father shot him during an argument.

The Trouble Man movie attempted to weave a story of redemption and hope from the tattered lives of its pool hustlers, corrupt cops, drug dealers and gangsters. For Gaye, one of popular music's truly gifted stars, there was no such hope: he once admitted in an interview that he could rarely see an escape from his life of drugs and violence.

The album is a beautiful work of music, soulful and powerful. But it's an uncomfortable listen because Gaye's pained wails reverberate with the misery to come.

Trouble Man  Marvin Gaye (Tamla Records)