Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Dir. by John Carpenter
Starring Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, James Hong and Victor Wong
After a night of drinking and gambling, trucker driver Jack Burton accompanies his friend Wang Chi, a San Francisco Chinatown restauranteur, to the airport to pick up his fiancée. When she is abducted by a street gang, the two mount a rescue attempt, only to become involved in the evil plans of a two-thousand-year-old Chinese sorcerer, who intends to use her to break the curse that is imprisoning him.
I first remember seeing the poster for this movie as a VHS box cover some time in the late 80s. It was in one of those old-school video stores where you had to bring up a key on a hook with the movie’s number on it to the clerk, who would then retrieve the movie from a storeroom. I’m pretty sure I didn’t see the movie itself until I was quite a bit older, closer to high school age, though I can’t remember the first time I watched it. It’s just always been there, a cult guilty pleasure that I’ve had fun introducing to various people over the years.
Like Sneakers, this is one of my favorite movies of all time. Therefore, this won’t really be a reevaluation of the movie like earlier reviews have been, since I’m not all that capable of being truly objective about it. However, I can definitely explain why I like it so much, and why I think it was vastly misunderstood by critics of the time and has come to be a cult classic now.
The premise for this movie, at first blush, looks like it’s going to be both generic and offensive. The white guy hero helps the goofy Asian sidekick rescue his fiancée from a bunch of stock character stereotypes. However, that’s the genius of the movie: Jack Burton is the goofy sidekick. He only thinks that he’s the hero, and we’re seeing the entire movie from his point of view. In reality, Wang Chi is the real hero of the movie, and Jack Burton pretty much fails at everything he attempts for the majority of the film.
I mentioned in my review for Romancing the Stone how I admired that movie for being a satire of a genre while also being a top-notch entry in that genre. Big Trouble in Little China does much the same thing for the “kung fu fantasy” genre (I hesitate to call it wuxia, as the focus really isn’t on the martial arts. Would anyone know the proper term for it?). Now, the movie never (overtly) pokes fun at Burton in the way of a parody, and it’s not really a comedy at all, though there definitely is a strain of humor running through the film. It does, however, take pains to subvert his self-styled awesomeness at every turn, showing how much of his John Wayne bravado is simply overcompensation for having absolutely no idea what’s going on.
For example, one of my favorite moments in the film comes in the climactic fight. The good and evil forces are squared off in a room, and both sides let out battle cries before charging each other. Caught up in the moment, Burton screams along with them, firing his gun into the air. Reality ensues, however, when the low plaster ceiling he just fired into collapses and hits him in the head, knocking him out of the first part of the battle.
Later in the same fight, he’s picking himself off the floor when he’s cornered by a large warrior in imposing armor. Still on his back, Burton slips a knife out of his boot and stabs him, killing him. This moment of badassness soon turns ridiculous, however, as the armored warrior collapses on top of him, and he has great difficulty extricating himself from underneath.
Critics at the time failed to pick up on any of this, and savaged the movie for having an ineffectual hero. Several critics, Roger Ebert among them, also compared the film to overly racist caricatures like Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. However, I feel like there’s way more going on here than they’re giving the movie credit for. First, the movie is told from Burton’s point of view. He is a complete outsider to this culture, gets all of his information second-hand, and spends most of the movie running from one supernatural encounter to another without any clue what’s actually going on. He should be seen as an unreliable narrator.
Second, to satirize a genre, you do have to utilize the tropes of the genre. Since a lot of the critics missed on the satire, I think that they assumed that the tropes were all being played straight. If that were the case, then they’d have a point. I don’t believe that they’re right, however. I also think that there’s no attempt to claim that any of this is reflective of actual Chinese legends or culture. Quite the opposite, in fact. There’s a line of dialogue halfway through the film that I find very telling in this regard. Egg Shen, the sorcerer on the good guy side, comments about all of the different conflicting religions and magical traditions in China by saying “We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.” I think that this is Carpenter telling the audience that the movie is exactly that, and isn’t meant to be a 100% accurate version of Chinese history or legend.
In the end, Jack Burton may be the one who deals the final blow to the evil sorcerer Lo Pan. However, Wang Chi and Egg Shen are the real heroes of this movie. Not the clueless white guy. And coming in the middle of all of the mid-80s Stallone/Schwarzenegger action movies with Middle Eastern/Asian/South American villains, that’s something that I can really appreciate.
This movie is silly, over-the-top, sublime ridiculousness. It’s also highly quotable, and quite a few phrases from it have entered into the status of running in-jokes among several different friend groups over the years. It’s definitely reached cult classic status among movie fans, so it’s not really an overlooked movie at this point. But if you haven’t seen it, take ninety minutes and give it a spin.
-The reporter character is literally only in this movie to provide exposition, and very clunky exposition at that. However, there’s this wonderful little moment when she rattles off like a paragraph of exposition that everyone (other than Burton and the audience) would already know, and everyone else just turns and stares at her.
-There was this stuntman named Al Leong, who was in pretty much every major action movie of the 80s (he was the terrorist who steals the candy bar in Die Hard, for example). I think this is the most screentime he ever gets in one movie, as the extremely badass cleaver-wielding leader of Lo Pan’s army of soldiers.
-This movie was apparently one of the major influences on the original Mortal Kombat game, specifically for the characters of Raiden and Shang Tsung. We’ll get to the other main influence, Bloodsport, further down the line.
-The scene where one of the main henchmen kills himself by deliberately inflating until he explodes has to be one of the most memorable death scenes in movie history.