“What does that mean: ‘China is here’?”
Box office returns aside, John Carpenter made the correct choice deciding to helm supernatural comedy adventure Big Trouble in Little China rather than supernatural comedy adventure The Golden Child back in the mid-80s. While both had similar twenty-five million dollar budgets, it’s hard to believe watching today that the former made back only eleven as the latter rose to almost eighty. This is what happens when your star is a bankable commodity like Eddie Murphy as opposed to an up-and-comer in Kurt Russell. However, one of the biggest reasons Carpenter’s film excels above the other is because even though Russell graces the poster and acts like he’s the hero, the character of Jack Burton is far removed from ever living up to those expectations. He knows it, the film embraces it, and we have a blast as a result.
Sold as a 1880s Western by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, it’s hilarious to discover that almost everyone who read the original script thought it laughably absurd. I’d love to check out that first draft because W.D. Richter‘s full-scale rewrite is hardly steeped in anything remotely close to an authentic portrayal of reality. What’s so great about it, though, is that everyone is in on the joke. How else could you have characters like Margo the reporter (Kate Burton) and Gracie Law the do-gooder (Kim Cattrall) spew out lines fast enough to lose their breath that contain nothing but expository details we don’t even need? And when the lines aren’t literally describing their next destination with, “The Wing Kong exchange? The most dangerous den of cutthroat men in Chinatown?” they are as campy as possible with deadpan deliveries.
It’s pure cheese and I love every minute from the blowhard that is Russell’s Jack Burton relaying over-the-top nonsense on his CB radio to mystical tourist-trap bus driver Egg Shen (Victor Wong) forcing us to take every morsel of insanity he shares seriously. There’s heavies aptly named Rain (Peter Kwong), Thunder (Carter Wong), and Lightning (James Pax) wearing gigantic woven baskets for hats as electricity emanates from their fingertips; their spectral boss Lo Pan (James Hong), cursed from being flesh and bone until finding a green-eyed girl to love him; and a slew of nameless gang members rumbling in the streets like they’re in a hokey, non-musical retelling of West Side Story. And through it all is Burton knocking himself unconscious before the fight evens begins while “sidekick” Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) kicks ass to save his kidnapped fiancé.
Think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom except that the titular hero is an egotistical, bumbling fool while Short Round proves the ever-underestimated warrior diving headfirst into the fray. It’s been a couple decades since I last saw the film, but I swore Burton was a smooth-talking mountain of a man enlisted to take down a ghost he doesn’t understand. Realizing now he’s probably the dumbest person involved—constantly getting in his own way—only makes me enjoy the whole more. Russell is fantastic too, always taking himself seriously despite never earning the respect he believes he’s attained. The rest feed his ego while subtly rolling their eyes, but he’s too busy smiling smugly to notice. That’s not to say he isn’t courageous to a fault, you simply must wonder if he’s helping or stoking his internal legacy.
Scratch that, you don’t wonder because it’s obvious he’s doing it for himself if only so the rest can adore him for the attempt. Don’t think he isn’t crucial to the plot, though. His truck driver is still our entry point into the underground world of sorcery he unwittingly enters simply because Wang owes him a couple grand after a night of gambling. We revel in his pureblooded American trying to save the day as a knee-jerk reaction to get even with a couple of punks that made him look bad in front of the girl he was attempting to “woo” (Cattrall) and relate to his complete ignorance towards the convoluted plot gradually shared while he goes deeper and deeper into the entrails of a San Francisco establishment holding every level of hell imaginable.
To combat its dangers—the aforementioned voltage triplets, a gruesome beast reminiscent of Blanka from Street Fighter, and Lo Pan’s glowing eye-rays—is Dun’s extremely likeable Wang who himself finds it difficult to believe that the ancient Chinese stories he was told as a child are true. A simple restaurateur, he and Egg Shen don’t need much time to show they are more than they may seem. Not only can they fight with fists and magical exploding gems respectively, they can also hold their own against Burton’s smart-mouthed quips. You can’t deny their handle on the film’s tone either to find a balance between the overwrought severity of the drama and the chaos of action necessary to prevail. Everyone is a cliché in this respect, but we don’t mind because no one is trying to trick us into thinking they aren’t.
Cattrall is the weak link playing too far into caricature and never quite deciding whether she’s the damsel in distress or the brains of the operation ready to barge in guns blazing. Hong’s Lo Pan is iconic riding a wheelchair underneath layers of wrinkles and floating through the air with an otherworldly glow. He epitomizes hammy villainy, excelling at being goofily creepy in equal measure to frighteningly formidable. The true star, however, is Russell’s former Disney kid and his fearless ability to play a meathead shooting first and not caring about any questions later. A Carpenter staple with Escape From New York and The Thing under his belt, he cemented his stardom by proving as funny as he is brawny to help it all add up to an unforgettable film that defines a decade perfectly attuned for spectacle and fun.