OneMetal film REVIEW: Must Watch Cult Movies: John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China

Must Watch Cult Movies: John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China

Released in 1986, two weeks before James Cameron’s sci-fi sequel blockbuster Aliens, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China faded into obscurity upon its initial cinematic release. To make matters worse, a vastly inferior East-meets-West rival, The Golden Child, starring Eddie Murphy and directed by Fletch helmer Michael Ritchie, blew away Big Trouble In Little China at the box office. Just what the hell was wrong with people in 1986? Thank God for VHS and DVD!

All-American Jack Burton gets more than he bargained for when he agrees to rescue the kidnapped girlfriend of his buddy, Wang Chi, and his beloved truck. What follows is an explosive journey into the very bowels of Chinese mysticism and monsters, as Jack, Wang and the forces of good attempt to defeat evil demon sorcerer David LoPan.

Big Trouble In Little China: Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) and Jack Burton (Kurt Russell)

Wang Chi and Jack Burton - Amongst the greatest vest-wearing stars of the ‘80s, Russell even surpasses his vest work in Escape From New York

Carpenter, interested in the blend of eastern sorcery and western humour, deemed the original script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein a shambles, and promptly drafted in writer-director W. D. Richter in for a complete overhaul. Anyone who’s seen Richter’s work on Philip Kaufman’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) or John Badham’s Dracula (1979) will know what an original and exciting screenwriter he was. That he hasn’t worked more, and that he wrote the script for Stealth (2005), are disappointments this reviewer still struggles to understand.

Transposing the action from the 1880s of the original script to the 1980s amongst San Francisco’s Chinatown community, Carpenter hoped to capitalise on the growing interest in martial arts movies sparked off by The Karate Kid. Further inspired by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark’s mix of martial arts and special effects in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), Carpenter’s genre mishmash needed one last component: a hero. Enter Jack Burton.

John Carpenter, a massive fan of Howard Hawks and his John Wayne-starring western Rio Bravo, uses Jack Burton as a means to poke sly satirical jabs at Republican America. Thrusting a blow-hard American into a world of Eastern mysticism makes for some wonderfully amusing cultural blunders, but it’s definitely our Jack who looks the fool. And what a fantastic fool he is, too.

Big Trouble In Little China: Jack Burton, Egg Shen, Wang Chi and The Chang Sings in an elevator

Is it just me, or is it kind of hot in here?

Former child actor Kurt Russell wasn’t quite the major A-list star he would soon become, but his stock was rising. His early collaborations with Carpenter and Robert Zemeckis’ 1980 screwball comedy, Used Cars, were to ensure that he was a big enough name to step into Jack Burton’s cowboy boots when the studio’s favourites, Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson, turned the role down.

Russell absolutely nails the role. With 100% belief, Burton repeatedly espouses his views as if they were gospel, often drunk and sometimes behind the wheel of his truck, the Pork Chop Express. His pearls of wisdom have become the stuff of cult film legend, so ridiculous is his culturally inept, barroom philosophy. If you look at his contribution to the rescue effort, he doesn’t do a single useful thing until the very end of the movie. Hell, he’s unconscious as the result of gross negligence/incompetence with a firearm for most of the finale!

If Burton represents the sheer incompetency of America, then his partner in crime, interracial Wang Chi (Dennis Dun – Midnight Caller), is a more dynamic and integrated USA. Meanwhile, Burton’s romantic interest, Kim Cattrall does her bit as Asian-American love interest and budding journalist Gracie Law. Cattrall proves herself adept in the comic scenes and it’s a shame we didn’t see more of her in the eighties – stop sniggering about Porky’s (1981) at the back… that’s not what I meant. Much smarter than jingoistic Jack, their constant bickering is a throwback to the rapid-fire rom-coms of Carpenter’s favourite director, Howard Hawks.

Big Trouble In Little China: Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall)

Jack claims he's only in it for his truck, but that lipstick suggests the redneck doth protest too much

No review of Big Trouble In Little China is complete without a paragraph about actor Victor Wong. The thinking man’s Pat Morita, Wong was one of the finest second-generation Asian-American thespians of all-time and was forever immortalised in Jack Kerouac’s final novel, Big Sur. Also a major highlight of Tremors (1990), Wong is sensationally funny as cantankerous, scene-stealing tour bus operator and mystical Chinese warrior Egg Shen. To give such a brilliantly quirky performance out of a role designed to deliver exposition speaks volumes about the man.

Veteran actor James Hong – a memorable supporting actor in countless movies, including Wayne’s World 2 (in which he spoofs Big Trouble In Little China’s fight scenes), plays evil Chinese mystic David LoPan. Consigned to live for eternity as an aged man on the cusp of death, LoPan also exists as an ephemeral ghost-like version of his true form when the moment dictates. Hong contributes to one of the funniest scenes in cinema history, as ‘Dave’ and Jack rather charmingly bridge the cultural divide to philosophize on the nature of love and loss.

The film also pays its dues to Japanese martial arts classic Lonewolf And Cub: Baby Cart At The River Styx (1973), with the Three Storms – villainous supernatural beings under the charge of LoPan. Styled after the Hidari Brothers (aka the Gods of Death), these super tough warriors regularly pop-up to bring the special effects-heavy pain. The rest of the heavies represent a who’s who of Asian-American cult actors, including top stuntman Jeff Imada, Showdown In Little Tokyo’s Gerald Okamura and Die Hard’s Al Leong.

Whilst Asian-American observations and culture clashes abound, Carpenter wisely, but somewhat unsuccessfully, elects to score the music in his house style. It’s Carpenter’s worst score to-date, some way below his memorable work on Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween. Masochists absolutely must watch the cringe-worthy music video starring John and his band, the Coupe DeVilles.

If the music feels a little below par, the effects were pretty special for a movie released in 1986. Whilst John Carpenter wasn’t particularly happy at the time, Richard Eduland and his Ghostbusters SFX team Boss Films were reportedly made-up about the results created for just $2m of the $24m budget. The balloon-like explosive demise of Thunder (Carter Wong) and the Floating Third Eye are effects to be proud of, but the rather rubbery monster designs make you wonder whether Carpenter had a point.

One area that the movie falls down in relation to its influences is in the action. In truth, Hong Kong action movies of the same era beat this movie up pretty badly when it came to fight choreography. John Carpenter’s sometimes-static direction and editing might be partly to blame, but stunt co-ordinator and fight planner James Lew (also associate producer) doesn’t provide anything particularly imaginative, although the uncensored early dust-up between the Wing Kong and Chan Sing street gangs has its moments. The movie always works best when it undercuts the action through Jack’s running commentary or his rather redneck approach to fight tactics.

Watch the trailer for Big Trouble In Little China below:

Bottom Line

Big Trouble In Little China might not be John Carpenter’s best movie, but it’s definitely his most enjoyable. Like most cult films, it’s littered with oddball character actors, offbeat performances, several bizarre but brilliant scenes, and eminently quotable dialogue throughout. Watch it for Kurt Russell’s best performance, the deadpan wit of W. D. Richter’s script and a genre mash-up from a master filmmaker at work. It’s time you paid your dues to this cult classic.

4.5/5 - Great, highly recommended

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