Big Trouble in Little China (1986) directed by John Carpenter
What’s it about?
Trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) takes his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to the airport to meet his bride-to-be, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), a Chinese girl with a very unusual feature: green eyes. However, just as the pair are about to reunite, she is abducted by a gang called the Wing Kong.
The pair take the truck and head off to San Francisco’s Chinatown where the gang is located. There, they end up in the middle of a fight between the Wing Kong and their rivals the Chang Sing, who have been locked in battle for centuries. The Wing Kong clan is ruled by a 1000-year-old sorcerer called Lo Pan (James Hong) whose physical body has withered - thus meaning that he needs to marry a girl with green eyes to regain his power and be able to take over the world.
So, Jack and Wang, aided and abetted by Wang’s buddy Eddie (Donald Li), lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), her reporter friend Margo (Kate Burton) and a sorcerer turned tour bus driver Egg Shen (Victor Wong) formulate a plan to rescue the girl from Lo Pan’s lair.
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Why is it significant?
Like a number of John Carpenter’s 80s efforts Big Trouble In Little China was a flop on release. However, widespread appreciation of the film has grown since then via TV rotation and a succession of releases on home viewing formats. One of the main reasons for its initial failure was that it was out of step with the tastes of the time period when it was released. Stars And Stripes macho wish-fulfillment fantasies such as Rambo and American Ninja depicted White All-American heroes single-handedly vanquishing whole armies of cardboard cutout Asians. Here, however, we have an example of this ilk who is certainly cocky and self-assured but also rather clueless. Thus, he ultimately relies on his Chinese companions to perform most of the ass-kicking.
Kurt Russell’s performance as Jack Burton has become one of his most iconic alongside Snake Plissken from Carpenter’s earlier Escape from New York. He also played a curiously similar persona (albeit in the form of a rather scruffy cop) in Tango & Cash (1989) alongside Sylvester Stallone.
The film homages Hong Kong and Japanese action and fantasy genres such as the Wuxia (Chinese swordplay fantasy) and Chambara (samurai movie) cycles which were relatively unfamiliar amongst American audiences at the time. There are also nods to some American genres whose popularity had passed such as the CB/Trucker Movie and the Screwball Comedy.
Interestingly, the original outline of the film (from the first draft script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein) combined the Far East fantasy elements with a Wild West setting. However, since the studio didn’t like the Western elements they brought in W. D. Richter to rewrite it to a modern-day setting. On the other hand, Russell’s performance is a self-acknowledged nod to the most famous of all Hollywood Western stars, John Wayne.
How does it hold up?
Big Trouble In Little China is a film that is best appreciated via repeat viewings; although, on the face of it, rather hokey and goofy it was clearly made by, and for, intelligent people. There is a lot more “snap” in the dialogue and action than you might see in other similar movies of the period - to the point where, on the first viewing, it’s easy to lose track of - as Jack Burton might say - “what the hell is going on”. Witty lines and exchanges pop up throughout - right from the opening scene of Jack driving along in his trusty truck “Pork Chop Express” spouting his philosophies into his CB:
“Like I told my last wife, I say, ‘Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.’”
Kurt Russell is perfect as Jack Burton, capturing a sense of larger-than-life machismo and arrogance that causes him to believe he can outmatch any opponent regardless of the fact that he goes through most of the fights either as a bystander, incapacitated, or (at best) via some lucky stumbling. He generates a great bouncy chemistry in his exchanges with others, in particular in his flirtations with Kim Cattrall and his attempts to assert his alpha status over the unassuming real hero of the film, Dennis Dun’s Wang.
Big Trouble In Little China is a visual feast as production designer John J. Lloyd conjures up a Chinatown that’s an ornate maze of narrow, fog-shrouded alleys, bright neon restaurant signs and buildings that consist of endless warrens of artefact-filled storage rooms, lavish temples and hidden torture chambers. It’s all captured with a wonderfully otherworldly, mystical atmosphere by cinematographer Dean Cundey.
An adventure that zooms colourfully by
John Carpenter’s previous action-adventure Escape From New York (also starring Russell), while generally entertaining, struggled to get up a full head of steam in terms of pacing. Not so here: the whole film zooms colourfully by, the action erupting from nowhere, the camera constantly on the move, whipping from incident to incident like a crazed horsefly. While there are layers of detailed background mythology and world-building Carpenter avoids falling into the post-Lord Of The Rings trap of letting it take up 3 hours of turgid narrative plod. In many ways, Wang acts as the de facto narrator for all of this complexity - explaining things right in the thick of the action to his gormless All-American counterpart.
The ending seems to promise a sequel - one which, due to film’s box office failure, never materialised. A pity: the world could do with another dose of Jack Burton, even if he is a bit of a buffoon.
Runtime: 99 min
Dir: John Carpenter
Script: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W. D. Richter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Suzee Pai