In the mid-1980s, thanks to the miracle of VHS, Chinese action and horror films started gaining a foothold in the west. Films like Dip bin/The Butterfly Murders (1979), Shu Shan – Xin Shu shan jian ke/Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983), Gui da gui/Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980) and many more starting turning up, legitimately or otherwise, and proved immensely popular. All this followed on from the huge boom in kung fu films a decade earlier, another of the genres that director John Carpenter loved.
Indeed, one suspects that Carpenter would have been as avid a viewer of this new wave of Asian genre films as any, and when presented with a script – originally written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein as a supernatural western but with the genre being a tough sell at that time, one that was extensively rewritten by W.D. Richter – that paid unashamed homage to Hong Kong cinema he was eager to get involved. He and Richter crammed the resulting film, Big Trouble in Little China, full of the same mind-boggling mix of wild fantasy, bone crushing martial arts and daft humour but it wasn’t a hit when it was first released (the general film-making public didn’t seem ready yet for this brand of action cinema just yet) but has since accrued a sizable cult following.
Carpenter doesn’t hang around for explanations, preferring to plunge us straight into the action (after a brief prologue that was forced on him by producers 20th Century Fox.) Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) wins a bet with his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) and accompanies him to the airport to make sure he doesn’t try to wriggle out of paying up. Wang is going to meet his fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) and they witness the kidnapping of another woman by Chinese street gang, the Lords of Death. Having failed to grab the woman they were after, the gang abduct Miao Yin instead from under the nose of her friend, attorney Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall). Burton and Wang follow the Lords of Death to Chinatown, where they witness a fight between rival clans of warrior sorcerers. In the mayhem, The Three Storms – Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong), and Lightning (James Pax) arrive, a massacre ensues, Burton runs over the leader of The Three Storms, David Lo Pan (James Hong) and has his beloved truck stolen. At Wang’s restaurant, Gracie, her journalist friend Margo (Kate Burton), Wang’s friend Eddie Lee (Donald Li), and magician and tour guide Egg Shen (Victor Wong) persuade a reluctant Burton to help them rescue Miao Yin. After many skirmishes, Burton learns that Lo Pan needs a green-eyed woman to help him break an ancient curse and intends Miao Yin to be his sacrifice. It’s up to Burton and his mismatched accomplices to find her and Gracie (who has also now been kidnapped) and rescue them, fighting monsters, wizards and skilled martial artists along the way.
The plot is slight and just very slightly all over the place (“we shall try to bring order out of chaos,” muses Egg Shen at one point) but that’s hardly the point. Carpenter directs with his usual verve and style, martial arts choreographer James Lew sets up some extraordinary fight scenes, Dean Cundey‘s photography is its usual marvel and the whole thing is underpinned with another of Carpenter‘s wonderful rock scores. With a whiff of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) to complement the Hong Kong influence, Big Trouble in Little China is crammed full of top-notch action scenes, from a mass brawl in a back street in San Francisco’s Chinatown to the elaborate and beautifully choregraphed set piece at the climax. And such huge fun it all is too.
And much of that fun is down to the cast who enter into the spirit of things with commendable gusto. Kurt Russell is, as you’d expect, a huge bundle of energetic fun as the hopeless Jack Burton, whose enthusiasm and bravery aren’t even remotely matched by his abilities. He succeeds in spite of himself, often doing more harm than good (at one point he brings down a chunk of the ceiling on his head when, in a fit of machismo, he manfully fires a machine gun into the air) and usually has to wait for his “sidekick” Wang Chi to bail him out. His heart is in the right place, but his brain rarely engages fully. But he’s a lovable buffoon, rushing in like the All-American hero only to fall flat on his face, bringing the stereotype of the swaggering, confident and competent hero crashing down with him. His funniest moment is surely when he continues to act like a cut-price John Wayne when with Gracie’s lipstick smeared all over his mouth.
Kim Cattrall makes for a fiery, no-nonsense Lois Lane-like heroine (Cattrall absolutely refuses to be consigned to Russell’s shadow), Dennis Dun steals all the best moments and it’s always a pleasure to see the great James Hong and Victor Wong going through their paces. Hong in particular is excellent as the villainous and inhuman David Lo Pan, intellectually outsmarting poor Jack at every turn and giving by turns the funniest and nastiest turn in the film.
Yes, there are a few not-quite-convincing rubber monsters along the way but that’s the 1980s for you. Otherwise, Big Trouble in Little China is a ridiculous amount of fun. Funny, exciting, breath-taking and brimming with energy, it deserved better than it got at the US box office, losing out in the Hollywood-take-on-Asian-cinema stakes of 1986 to Michael Ritchie’s lacklustre Eddie Murphy vehicle, The Golden Child. Carpenter‘s film ended up losing money on its initial release but it’s been the film that stood the test of time – who talks about The Golden Child anymore? Big Trouble in Little China is still much loved and feels much fresher and more innovative even now than Ritchie’s film.
Though Jack Burton and the world of Big Trouble in Little China lived on in comics, video games and even board and card games, the film’s failure at the box office precluded a big screen sequel (Carpenter later made films independently, avoiding the Hollywood majors after suffering an unhappy experience making the film.) Which is tragic, as the teaming of Russell, Dun, Cattrall and Wong could have surely carried a very lucrative franchise. As the film’s reputation rose however, there were increasing murmurings of a belated follow up. As of summer 2021, a sequel is in the works, with Dwayne Johnson taking the lead role though not as Jack Burton. It may or may not be any good – one’s natural cynicism leads one to suspect the latter – but it’s unlikely that it’ll be able to capture the free-wheeling joie de vivre of the original.
Directed by: John Carpenter; A Taft/Barish/Monash production. Produced and released by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Executive Producers: Paul Monash, Keith Barish; Produced by: Larry J. Franco; Written by: Gary Goldman & David Z. Weinstein; Adaptation by: W.D. Richter; Director of Photography: Dean Cundey; Edited by: Mark Warner, Steve Mirkovich, Edward A. Warschilka; Music by: John Carpenter in association with Alan Howarth; Costume Designer: April Ferry; Makeup Supervisor: Ken Chase; Hair Stylist: Susan Kalinowski; Creatures Created by: Steve Johnson; Special Effects Coordinator: Joseph Unsinn; Visual Effects Produced by: Richard Edlund; Visual Effects: Boss Film Corporation; Production Designer: John J. Lloyd; Martial Arts Choreographer: James Lew
Kurt Russell (Jack Burton); Kim Cattrall (Gracie Law); Dennis Dun (Wang Chi); James Hong (David Lo Pan); Victor Wong (Egg Shen); Kate Burton (Margo); Donald Li (Eddie Lee); Carter Wong (Thunder); Peter Kwong (Rain); James Pax (Lightning); Suzee Pai (Miao Yin); Chao Li Chi (Uncle Chu); Jeff Imada (Needles); Rummel Mor (Joe Lucky); Craig Ng (One Ear); June Kim [real name: June Kyoto Lu] (White Tiger); Noel Toy (Mrs O’Toole); Jade Go (Chinese Girl in White Tiger); Jerry Hardin (pinstripe lawyer); James Lew (Chang Sing #1)