“Sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… call the president.”
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong
In a Nutshell:
Much like The Thing, Carpenter’s action-packed buddy adventure kung-fu monster supernatural fantasy movie Big Trouble in Little China was a box office flop but went on to become a beloved cult classic. He playfully threw multiple genres at the wall and most of it stuck, resulting in a movie that has a little something for everyone. If you just want a big dumb action flick, you’ve got spectacular fights, dastardly bad guys and some goofy monsters thrown in for good measure.
Or, if you’re looking for a deconstruction of the Hollywood action hero, the movie has that, too. Carpenter and Russell were well ahead of their time when they cooked up the character of Jack Burton, a swaggering, big-talking, perpetually confused buffoon dropped into the middle of a supernatural turf war. It was a stroke of genius, centring the story on a sidekick who thinks he’s the hero, and Russell’s performance makes the movie endlessly rewatchable.
Truck driver and CB-radio philosopher Jack Burton (Russell) is in San Francisco catching up with his best buddy Wang Chi (Dun), owner of a Chinatown restaurant. After Wang loses a bet to Jack (“It’s all in the reflexes”), Jack goes with him to the airport to pick up Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), Wang’s fiancee who is flying in from China for their wedding. She has barely stepped off the plane when she is snatched by a gang of street punks called the Lords of Death.
Jack and Wang head over to Chinatown to get her back, but get caught in the middle of a street battle between two rival factions. The deadly brawl is interrupted by three badass supernatural entities known as the Storms – Thunder, Rain, and Lightning – who slaughter the benevolent Chang Sing gang. Our heroes try to make their escape, but run into – and through – an evil Chinese sorcerer called Lo Pan (Hong).
Lo Pan needs a green-eyed girl to break an ancient curse, and wouldn’t you know it? Miao Yin is a rare Chinese girl with green eyes. Also with green eyes is Gracie Law (Cattrall), a go-getting lawyer who lives in the neighbourhood. After the Storms take Miao Yin to Lo Pan’s underground lair in preparation for a wedding ceremony, Wang and Jack must infiltrate the many levels of traps and enemies to rescue her…
I’ll come right out and say it: this is the best performance of Kurt Russell’s career. He counter-balances Jack Burton’s cocksure arrogance with his confusion and big-heartedness so perfectly, and Russell is at his most dashing playing a wannabe tough guy who is completely out of his depth. When I was a kid I just thought he was badass with great lines and a cool tank top; now I’m an adult and can see what Carpenter and Russell did with the character, I love him even more. Action heroes were only a novel thing back in 1986 when they decided to turn one on his head.
Dennis Dun’s sweet sincerity makes a nice contrast to Burton’s braggadocio, and his chemistry with Russell is so natural that it almost passes without comment. Kim Cattrall is smouldering as Gracie Law, with a fiery intelligence that leaves you with little doubt that Burton has more than met his match. Sure, she’s the love interest, but she plays it with real fire in her belly.
Of the supporting characters, Hong stands out in a dual role as the despicable Lo Pan, sinister is his elaborate Chinese robes and just plain creepy under impressive old man make-up. Victor Wong, a familiar face in 80s and 90s films, only broke into acting in his fifties. He makes a memorable impression as Egg Shen, a good sorcerer and Lo Pan’s long-time nemesis.
Carpenter provided his trademark synth score for the movie, mixing in a little rock ‘n’ roll to match the rollicking action. It matches the mood of the film well and he was nominated for a Saturn Award for the music.
As with many ’80s classics, there has been some modern day handwringing about Big Trouble in Little China and a few accusations of Orientalism. Yet it seems that most people come down on the side of Carpenter, praising his commitment to casting Chinese actors and creating an authentic Asian-American environment for the action to take place – check out this excellent article here.
Crucially, Carpenter is making fun of the “white saviour” trope that was outdated even back in the 80s. Jack Burton may be the central character but Wang is the hero of the movie. Burton doesn’t just swagger in and kick ass. He is completely confused, gets his ass kicked, and relies on the Chinese people he meets to clue him in on what is going on. Even then, he is pretty useless until the final showdown with Lo Pan.
Big Trouble in Little China is the movie I think about when I get all nostalgic about the heyday of VHS rental. I adored poring over the poster art on the boxes at our local video store, and this was one movie that delivered everything the fantastic artwork promised. Cool tough guys and guns, hot women, evil sorcerers, plenty of fights, magic and mystery – everything an eight-year-old boy could want.
I’m happy to say that it still holds up today, and then some. This is mostly down to two factors, which I have already mentioned: Carpenter and Russell’s decision to subvert the all-American hero, and Russell’s brilliant performance.
Also, I bought the Blu-ray and it is definitely the best disc I’ve purchased so far. After years of suffering crappy pan-and-scan copies on VHS or TV, seeing it in crisp widescreen glory was a revelation. It was like seeing the movie for the first time. Cinematographer Dean Cundey’s contribution here definitely stands alongside his previous work with Carpenter on The Fog and The Thing.
I loved Big Trouble in Little China as a kid and I love it as a grown up. Most recently I watched it with my six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, and guess what? They loved every second of it too…