Review: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #750

Number of Views: Three
Release Date: July 1, 1986
Sub-Genre: Fantasy/Action Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $19,000,000
Box Office: $11,100,000
Running Time: 99 minutes
Director: John Carpenter
Producer: Larry J. Franco
Screenplay: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein
Adaptation: W. D. Richter
Special Effects: Steve Johnson
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Score: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Editing: Steve Mirkovich, Mark Warner, Edward A. Warschilka
Studios: TAFT Entertainment Pictures, SLM Production Group
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Stars: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, James Pax, Suzee Pai, Chao-Li Chi, Al Leong, Gerald Okamura, Nathan Jung, Lia Chang, Frank Ho, James Lew

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] John Carpenter “Vortex”

[2] Coup De Villes “Big Trouble in Little China”

[3] John Carpenter & Alan Howarth “Abduction at Airport”

[4] John Carpenter & Alan Howarth “Here Come The Storms”

[5] John Carpenter & Alan Howarth “Escape From Wing Kong”

[6] John Carpenter & Alan Howarth “The Pork Chop Express”

Of all the filmmakers knocking about at the end of the seventies and early eighties, none were so paramount to my filmic development as John Howard Carpenter. After shooting us off into the stars for his hugely promising 1974 debut, Dark Star, and consolidating his position as outstanding up-and-comer two years later through the siege mentality of Assault on Precinct 13, he entered into a four-year run that produced four of the best genre movies of an entire era. Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York and The Thing proved not only his dominance as a director, but also his diversity as a storyteller. It certainly helped that he surrounded himself with similarly talented individuals such as screenwriter and producer Debra Hill, cinematographer Alan Cundey and fellow composer Alan Howarth but Carpenter’s unique vision was undeniable and these early works massively influential.

However, the problem with being positioned on a pedestal is that it leaves you wide open for snipers and, predictably, it wasn’t long before the killjoys began to line him up in their crosshairs and take their pot shots. His 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s best-seller Christine received only a luke-warm response and, a year later, his next studio venture Starman struggled to recoup its outlay, despite earning its leading man, Jeff Bridges, an Oscar nod. The honeymoon period appeared to be over for Carpenter and all eyes were on his next effort to check out his bounce back capabilities. It was starting to become clear that studio interference was playing a role in each back step and, by the time Big Trouble in Little China came about in 1986, their meddling was all too evident. While the film didn’t have to suffer the indignity of being universally panned, it netted 20th Century Fox a loss of almost $10m and proved a distinct turning point in his career.

When you speak to any other Carpenter fan, the general consensus is that this was his last truly monumental motion picture with They Live warranting mention in the argument also. From 1988 onward, it is all too easy to chart the gradual decline in his output in the same manner that his Italian buddy, Dario Argento, passed that sweet spot after Opera. Big Trouble in Little China may not have set coffers blazing on its release but it did manage to secure a little thing called cult status and we all know that buys a certain degree of artistic immunity. Whether it was his last great movie or not is irrelevant as it’s a great movie first and foremost and anything beyond that is ultimately subjective.

Its passage from page to screen was anything but trouble-free. First-time screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein wrote the first draft of the screenplay as a western set in the 19th century and the studio brought in veteran script doctor W. D. Richter to make any necessary alterations. What he did was essentially rewrite the entire thing from the ground up and modernize it, a decision supported by Carpenter as this is the way he envisaged it working. It was certainly a risk as Richter had recently directed The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and that wound up a huge commercial flop but, despite the studio constantly undermining Carpenter throughout the process, Big Trouble in Little China made it to screen months before Michael Ritchie’s The Golden Child, which was seen as its main competition.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this film is the way that its lead Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is represented as a bumbling idiot. He may enjoy top billing and look the part, but any similarities to the iconic Snake Plissken from Escape From New York end at the sleeveless top and bulging muscles. Russell was initially reluctant to accept the role but it was his character’s flaws that made the part attractive to him, in addition to his old buddy Carpenter’s insistence that things would work out in the end. Of course, we all know they didn’t, at least from a financial standpoint, and the director washed his hands of Hollywood as a direct result of the film’s box-office failure. But it’s great to see Russell sending himself up and his character’s numerous imperfections endear him to us no end.

We catch up with our blundering hero at a high stakes card game which he has just won (a rare small victory for the truck driver) and he agrees to accompany his restaurateur friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to the airport to pick up Wang’s Chinese fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) and ensure he honours the payment. The pair clearly have a lot of history and, for all their petty squabbles, they’ve evidently got one another’s backs.

They head off together in Burton’s big-rig and all appears to be going to plan. Moreover, Jack’s decision to chaperone his pal is instantly justified as he spots Miao Yin’s friend, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), in the crowd, awaiting her imminent arrival and wastes no time in making a B-line for her.

However, before he can wear down Gracie’s defences, things kick off in style, and Miao Yin is snatched from customs by a Chinese street gang, the Lords of Death, who seemingly have the intention of selling her on as a sex slave. Naturally, Wang Chi is somewhat distressed by the turn of events and desperate to reclaim his true love before a hair on her head can be harmed.

Naturally, Jack isn’t going to let his old buddy down in times of such intense need as Gracie is clearly caught up in all this intrigue. Naturally, she’s going to do her utmost not to look interested, while offering just enough of a clue that she’s ready for Jack to take her right there upon the luggage carousel. Regrettably, there’s very little natural about this particular kidnapping. You see, after trailing the Lords of Death to a Chinatown back street and witnessing a funeral procession swiftly erupting into a full-blown turf war, things take a rapid turn for the otherworldly.

Enter “The Three Storms” – a trio of ancient warriors with mystical powers, known individually as Thunder, Rain, and Lightning, who appear from a puff of emerald smoke. Jack may be tasty with his dukes and Wang his outstretched leg but the weather report is not looking encouraging and, sooner or later, these chop-suey motherfuckers are going to run out of Chinese gang members to thoroughly decimate and the barometer is starting to twitch wildly. However, it’s the trio’s illustrious leader David Lo Pan (James Hong) who they may wish to consider prioritizing.

You see, Lo Pan is a legendary sorcerer and the kind of worrying warlock who thinks nothing of being ploughed down by a fast moving semi-trailer. Not only is he unfazed by this traffic altercation and glowing with grinning intent, but he has grand plans for staging a wedding in the foreseeable and there’s nothing in ancient Chinese scripture that states a man who could quite clearly compact Monkey, Piggsy and Sandy into tofu has to settle on just the one wife.

Miao Yin may possess quite the handsome pair of jade peepers, but Gracie’s sporting rather a fetching brace emerald orbs also and a muscle-bound (and vaguely thick-headed) man’s man like Jack Burton ain’t gonna give his blessing on that shit, without fueling her tank with unleaded at least once. Had I mentioned that Lo Pan intends on sacrificing both his new spouses to appease the God of the East, Ching Dai? You may want to shake a tail feather or two guys.

The thing about ancient Chinese warlocks is that it’ll take a lot more than fancy kung-fu skills and questionable fire-arm ability to put a dent in their wedding plans. Jack and Wang appreciate this bitter truth, so round-up their very own posse to assist in taking the battle to the groom.

Skilled magician Egg Shen (Victor Wong) has some game, Wang’s friend Eddie Lee (Donald Li) can swing a fist in fury, and in roving reporter Margo Litzenberger (Kate Burton) they have themselves some column inches when this whole unfortunate mess is done and dusted. That’s not to mention the droves of tagalongs that are only too happy to dance to the beat of Jack’s drum for no other reason than that he looks precisely like he knows what he’s doing.

This is where I draw comparisons to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension as, along with dozens of extras, we get swept along in all the madness and begin to realize that the plot is little more than an enabling tool for wave upon wave of relentless entertainment. The entire cast is more than aware how ludicrous it all sounds and the dialogue steers knowingly towards parody at every opportunity. But there’ so much enthusiasm on exhibit from all involved that resistance to its charms become utterly futile.

We are under no illusion as to who the real sidekick is here, but Jack Burton is so impossible not to cherish that we allow him to lead from the front and clap like seals every time he shrugs off failure. Russell knows he is essentially sending up Snake Plissken, the character who earned him the title of ultimate eighties tough guy, and pitches his performance just right.

Meanwhile, Dun does a masterful job of reversing the goofy Asian buddy stereotype all too common at the time and plays long-suffering companion role to perfection, revealing an unflinching game face whenever the time for larking about draws to an instantaneous close.

The studio was initially reluctant to cast Cattrall as love interest, based on her flirtation with raunchy comedies such as Bob Clark’s Porky’s and Hugh Wilson’s Police Academy, and it’s with relief unparalleled that Carpenter talked them around to his way of thinking. She’s simply dazzling as Gracie and it’s easy to see why the tyrannical Lo Pan has decided to “go American” as she’s the kind of strong female character that would have Indiana Jones cracking his bullwhip with his breeches down and it seems only right that Snake Plisskin’s distant cousin (twice removed) gets a pop.

However, there’s a lot more to Big Trouble in Little China than impeccable casting as, despite the studio’s constant meddling, Carpenter’s unmistakable style runs through the entire movie like a stick of Brighton rock. He extracts maximum tension from every last precarious situation, ensuring that we’re never once at a standstill, and his long-standing collaboration with fellow composer Alan Howarth bears the sweetest of fruit here. The powers that be politely requested a more oriental-tinged score but the master just wasn’t having it and, as has always been the case with the pair’s synthesized compositions, it adds an additional layer of urgency to proceedings that flat-out forbids any lapses of concentration.

Each of The Three Storms is memorable and the moment they begin to inhale, we just know there are going to be light shows. When this happens, Lo Pan is on hand to orchestrate the madness and the screen becomes awash with vivid bolts of green and blue light.

The effects have aged marvelously and you could never accuse Big Trouble in Little China of not looking the part. But the real meat and potatoes lies in the sense of camaraderie he generates and it’s the interactions between all of them that ultimately keep things grounded.

I would absolutely class this as one of Carpenter’s most eminent works as the hallmarks are all present and correct. Strip away the bells and whistles and it’s essentially a comedy; taking a number of playful swipes at the fantasy action genre and landing pretty much all of them.

Watching Russell poking fun at the character who secured him eternal hero status is a joy to behold, he’s in fine company, and I’ve seldom known 99 minutes to coast past so effortlessly. The quality of his films may have gradually dipped after the whole Big Trouble in Little China debacle but what a bowl of noodles to send us packing with. Not so sure about the hot dumplings however. Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton says – “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

More Trouble in Little China 小中國更麻煩

Read The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension Appraisal
Read Escape From New York Appraisal
Read They Live Appraisal
Read Planet Terror Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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