For those who aren’t familiar with it, Big Trouble in Little China is a John Carpenter film that released on July 2, 1986, one that struggled and inevitably flopped in the box office but rebounded on home video release, eventually becoming a cult classic, loved by many, but especially this reviewer. Today, I’m taking a look into why it has resonated with so many people, and hopefully, by the end of reading this, those of you that haven’t checked it out will reconsider!
Kurt Russell plays hard-boiled truck driver Jack Burton who gets caught in a bizarre conflict within, and underneath, San Francisco’s Chinatown. An ancient Chinese prince and Chinatown crime lord has kidnapped a beautiful green-eyed woman who is the fiancé to Jack’s best friend. Jack must help his friend rescue the girl before the evil Lo Pan uses her to break the ancient curse that keeps him a fleshless and immortal spirit.
Narrative Doesn’t Have To Follow Stereotypes (Even in the Eighties)
When you see a movie starring Kurt Russell, especially in the 1980s, you expect to see him play his normal, gun-toting, badass hero and star of the show, right? Would you believe that Russell plays *this* character in Big Trouble Little China?
Sure, Jack Burton has his moments, and don’t get me wrong, Kurt Russell is absolute gold in the film, chewing scenery in his best John Wayne impersonation, but he’s not the REAL hero of the movie. This may shock some, but he’s the sidekick. Even in an interview for the 1986 issue of Starlog, Russell is quoted as saying:
Jack is “a hero who has so many faults. Jack is and isn’t the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He’s a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up.”
He’s no White Savior trope, just a stubborn guy along for the ride, trying to help out his buddy… even if he doesn’t want him to.
Perhaps in reverence to old serials like The Green Hornet where Kato would be the one who had his head on his shoulders and got things done most of the time, the writers penned the real heroes as Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi and Victor Wong’s mystical Egg Shen.
The film features probably the second most impressive gallery of effects work in John Carpenter’s directorial catalogue, right behind his remake of The Thing. Alongside the wire work necessary for the martial arts sequences, there are multiple creatures, including a demonic gorilla beastie, a floating thing that had to have been inspired by The Beholder from Dungeons & Dragons, and two villains who have transformation sequences! The studio that worked on it, Boss Films, is quoted as saying Big Trouble In Little China is their favorite thing they’ve worked on behind Ghostbusters, and they’re quite storied.
Even aside from the creatures occupying the world, the villains, led by James Hong’s vampiric Lo Pan, are based in classic Chinese mysticism, and their abilities show it, making them quite formidable for the buff but otherwise pretty normal trucker Jack Burton.
It’s Endlessly Quotable, and In a Good Way
There are so many good quotes, especially from Russell’s Jack Burton. If you watch with friends, I’m sure at least one of you is going to be quoting and re-quoting him constantly. Those quips are like Oreos… once you start with one, you’re not going to be content with the singular. I don’t want to spoil any context, but here’s my favorite.
It’s In its Own Class, And It Didn’t Get Credit For It (At the Time)
Off the top of my head, there’s only one other film that has mastered the crazy balancing act that Carpenter created in Big Trouble Little China: romance, horror, supernatural action, and cultural mixing without straight up appropriation. That movie is Stephen Sommer’s The Mummy (1998). While I also adore that movie, it got the credit it deserved. It was a massive box office success, garnering two sequels, an animated series, multiple comics, novels, and a handful of video game tie ins. Audiences reacted strongly to it, while Big Trouble In Little China was a box office flop, barely recouping years—even decades—later through home video and DVD releases.
I feel that without this film, there would be no The Mummy. One of the most formative movies of my—and probably many other millennial’s—childhood would not exist. Plus, so many other things have been inspired by Big Trouble In Little China. The makers of Mortal Kombat have directly acknowledged that Raiden was inspired by Thunder and Shang Tsung from Lo Pan. The comparisons are so clear, and it’s obvious why this film is a bitter subject for John Carpenter.
Regardless, I feel like John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, Victor Wong, and the rest of the cast and crew deserve a hearty thank you. If you haven’t seen Big Trouble In Little China, you should check it out on its 35th anniversary and support them all!