Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a bona fide superstar. Since he first hung up his wrestling boots to charge headfirst into Hollywood, he has become a sought-after and reliable action leading man. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s funny.
And yet, the June announcement that he would be starring in a redux of Big Trouble in Little China seemed off.
John Carpenter films are no strangers to the remake bug. Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog have all gotten updates over the past decade, and a new Escape From New York is again in the pipeline after several false starts. It was inevitable that Big Trouble would eventually get the same treatment.
The movie, in which Kurt Russell donned his rock-solid mullet and iconic tank top, is such an oddity it didn’t reach much of an audience in 1986. It was a box-office bomb, barely making back half of its $20 million budget. But that didn’t stop it from becoming a cult classic, beloved by its fans.
Russell is pitch-perfect as the bumbling Jack Burton. Burton may be the protagonist but he’s hardly the hero. The beauty of Big Trouble’s narrative is that Burton just kind of walks into a weird, supernatural adventure. He shrugs it off, admits it’s weird, and dives in headfirst. When Burton is introduced, he’s driving his long-haul 18-wheeler, The Pork Chop Express, and rattling off machoisms through the CB radio as he chows down on a hoagie.
“Like I told my last wife, I says, ‘Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.’”
He’s all bravura. He refers to himself in the third person, talking about old Jack Burton like those around him should already be impressed. Burton is a regular guy who thinks he’s the star of his own action movie in his everyday life, which explains why he’s so ready and willing to accept everything that comes next.
Dwayne Johnson has charisma to spare. It’s part of what made him a success in professional wrestling, and it’s what helped him transcend the squared circle to Hollywood better than any wrestler before him. (Dave Bautista is starting a bit late.) He could potentially pull off a role akin to the Burton character, but there are better options.
Instead of a straight remake, bring Russell back to reprise his role as an aged Burton with Johnson as his new partner in adventure. This would act as a bit of an olive branch to some of the purists who hold the original as sacred, while also giving Johnson a chance to work on a film outside of his norm. If it has to be Big Trouble and Jack Burton, a sequel could work just as well and possibly be a diamond in the rough. The risk with remakes is not damaging a legacy. It’s being redundant—Big Trouble in Little China just doesn’t need to be updated.
Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a Carpenter property perfectly suited to Johnson: They Live.
Released in 1988, They Live is a different kind of strange. A drifter kicked aside amid a financial crisis happens upon a box of sunglasses in an abandoned warehouse. He takes a pair, tries them on, and his reality is flipped on its head. While wearing the sunglasses, he sees that some people are actually aliens in disguise. It’s all part of a plan of quiet, hostile takeover while slowly enslaving the human race through media and sales.
Nada (because he’s never given a name) is played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the pro wrestler who died late last month at age 61. Piper was always a joy in the ring and on the microphone because he exuded energy and an offbeat craziness that somehow didn’t get translated to the movies. He’s wooden despite some really great one-liners like the now famous, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Johnson has shown in both professions that he’s capable of carrying a story. In his transition to cinema, he was a surprisingly endearing and entertaining lead in The Rundown. Even in Michael Bay’s uneven Pain and Gain, Johnson rose above the material and was easily the best part of the movie. They Live is great in spite of Piper’s merely okay performance. Johnson could give it an extra punch. His comic timing (Be Cool) is on point, and he can pull off a convincing fight.
They Live’s themes remain relevant today. With the prevalence of surveillance and the Edward Snowden case still playing out, a shadow government run by aliens can work as a perfect metaphor for life in a culture of prying eyes. One of the key ideas within the original is that the human public willingly allows it to happen. They’re comfortable. They’re pacified. Remaking They Live to include social media outlets is almost too perfect.
The plot is pretty outlandish, but it’s also probably an easier sell, and easier to cut an effective trailer than Big Trouble. Big Trouble in Little China is about an ancient Chinese evil spirit that kidnaps green-eyed women to help him rule the world. There are rival ninja groups, three lesser spirits/champions representing the elements, and a floating head with many eyes. There are unexplained monsters, and so much packed-in backstory that is never waved away by exposition. It requires an even greater suspension of disbelief than brainwashing aliens, and there’s little chance a remake won’t stop and painstakingly try to explain everything the second time around.
Part of They Live’s charm is its rough aesthetic. There’s very little polish. Carpenter’s films always relied heavily on practical effects, giving them a lived-in quality. Rob Bottin’s work on The Thing (itself a remake) may not always look believable, but there is a grotesque element that helps overcome this potential roadblock. The over-reliance on CGI in horror and action films these days has put audiences at arm’s length instead of sucking them in. It’s almost always immediately noticeable when CG effects are being used.
An upgrade does not need to include an onslaught of CGI to make a new They Live work. With the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, there may be more incentive to drift back toward models and makeup. The world presented in the movie should feel as real as possible—a mirror image of reality.
Style of filmmaking is not the only cue to be taken from the new Mad Max. Tone is a big part of what makes it work. It is insane and deadly serious, but it is also imbued with a sick sense of humor. Mad Max: Fury Road is consistently funny in its own warped way. The same goes for Carpenter’s movies, even when they’re played straight. They Live has a deadpan sensibility, but it displays its humor honestly. The eight-minute fight scene during which Nada tries to force Frank (Keith David) to wear the sunglasses starts earnestly enough before dissolving into absurdity by the end. It’s a joke that goes on too long only to become funny again.
Dwayne Johnson has the chops to pull off this balance. Sure, it’s conceivable he will do the Jack Burton character justice, but there are so many missteps that could derail a Big Trouble remake (a swerve in tone toward the bleakness du jour, for instance). Ironically, being of lesser quality also means They Live could handle any number of thematic shifts and still succeed. (After all, lesser-refined material retains plenty of untapped potential.)
Treated as a simple remake, Big Trouble will require a host of things to be done exactly right to come close to the original, and many of those things will be outside of Johnson’s control. All They Live needs is one little throwback to his wrestling days, a wink and a nod to what came before, to seal the deal. If Johnson arches his signature eyebrow before lowering the boom on an unsuspecting room of incognito aliens, he’ll remind audiences how much fun it can be to be “all out of bubblegum.”